Speak up for free speech — an Irish Women’s Lobby event

On Thursday, April 29, I spoke on a panel organized by the Irish Women’s Lobby called “Speak Up for Free Speech.” The panelists included myself, Lisa MacKenzie, Iseult White. Here is the text from my talk (which begins at 51:50 in the video above):

I’ve written and spoken extensively about the silencing of women over the years. Historically, women have been vilified, ostracized, beaten, and burned for speaking out of turn, for telling inconvenient truths, and for naming abuse and abusers. After over a century of fighting for women’s right to be heard, respected, and treated as persons, equal under the law, we have found ourselves in the odd position of being silenced, censored, and smeared — cancelled, as it were — simply for daring to remind the world that women’s rights are for women — females — for a reason.

We didn’t need to fight for rights because we felt feminine, wanted to wear dresses, use gender neutral pronouns, or get cosmetic surgeries — altering our bodies beyond all recognition. We fought for our rights because as females — the members of the human species capable of giving birth — we were treated differently; told we couldn’t make choices about our own lives or participate in politics, the workforce, sports, academia, or, broadly, public life. We belonged to men, quite literally. And they could do with us as they wished. As women, we were once told, we didn’t need independence — men had that, and they would be sure to speak and act on our behalf. Of course, things didn’t play out like that, so women had to risk it all to have their say, be visible, be treated with respect and taken seriously.

In every political movement in history speech has mattered. The right to protest is a key civil right, attached to free speech. Without free speech, marginalized groups could not have advanced, and fought back against their oppression or in defense of their human rights. Yet, too many feminists either fail to defend free speech or they actually fight against it. Our own speech matters a great deal to us, but we fail to extend that understanding to groups we disagree with or view as being at odds with our project.

We may, in the West, have forgotten how much we once had to struggle. We’ve achieved so much, we may fail to understand or recall what our sisters of previous generations suffered, or what women in other countries continue to suffer. In Canada, where I’m from, I think this is glaringly obvious. We took our rights and freedoms for granted, and now face losing them all, but seem unconcerned — as though this can’t all just slip through our fingers.

In recent years, women have faced silencing in a whole new way — we can no longer speak about biology, the reality of reproduction, women’s bodies, and sex without being labeled transphobic. To say women are adult human females has been deemed hate speech. As I’m sure many of you know, I was permanently suspended from Twitter for referring to a predatorial male as “he,” something apparently constituting “hateful conduct.”

A UK woman named Maya Forstater is currently in court after losing her job for saying that men cannot become women. Journalist Abigail Shrier wrote a book about the trend of girls transitioning to attempt to become boys, and the causes and impacts of such a trend, and both Amazon and Target attempted to ensure her book was inaccessible to purchase. The American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy director for transgender justice, Chase Strangio, tweeted, “Stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.” That’s the same American Civil Liberties Union that (rightly) defended the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977. And I don’t say “rightly” because I support Nazis. But because I support free speech — everyone’s free speech.

This same ACLU recently blocked a woman’s freedom of information request for data on the number of trans-identified males currently being housed in women’s prisons in Washington state. Today, it’s not the right fighting to censor opponents, but progressives, and it seems we have not yet come to terms with that reality. And while the right may not have historically been friends to feminists, we need to come to terms with the fact the threat of totalitarianism and oppression can come from any direction, and we need to fight it regardless of what end of the political spectrum is leading the charge. Even if it doesn’t fit our preferred narrative. Even if unexpected or irrational. Even if we don’t want to believe it.

Back in 2016, the Liberal Party of Canada introduced Bill C-16, which would add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination and the criminal code. There was no public debate, the media refused to acknowledge dissent for the most part, and too many of those who were actually aware the bill was working its way through the system — which was not many of us — failed to speak up. Perhaps they didn’t imagine the impact would be as serious as it turned out to be, and as impactful as a few of us warned it would be. Jordan Peterson warned the bill could lead to compelled speech, as we would all be forced to use preferred pronouns, regardless of their irrationality, which has come to fruition. A Canadian father named Rob Hoogland is now in jail for refusing to support his daughter’s desire to live as a boy, to be referred to as “he,” and to begin the process of transitioning. He continued to speak out in defense of his daughter’s best interest, despite orders not to, and is being punished harshly for doing so. I also spoke against Bill C-16, and struggled to be heard. I was the only person in Canada who published a piece in the mainstream media arguing the bill would harm women and women’s rights, and I testified against the bill in the Senate. For this, I have been tarred as bigoted, deemed persona non grata by Canadian media, protested, threatened, and cancelled by the Canadian left, as well as by many friends and acquaintances.

Today, just a few years later, the concerns expressed by people like Peterson and myself, along with a few others — including a Quebec women’s group Pour les droit des femmes (PDF) — are a reality. Feminists know all too well how this legislation has impacted our speech and spaces. In Canada, any man who announces he identifies as a woman is allowed access to women’s shelters, transition houses, change rooms, sports teams, and prisons. Women who feel uncomfortable about this are ignored or vilified. Apparently, the feelings and safety of half the population matter less than the desires or delusions of a few men. The funding of women’s organizations in Canada is now dependent on their willingness to go along with the mantra that transwomen are women.

We also know that gender identity ideology and legislation affects all kinds of people — not just women and not just feminists. Men like Peterson and Hoogland may not be perfect allies to the feminist movement, and yet their speech matters. They are absolutely correct in their fights. Yet many feminists remain steadfast in their refusal to engage with those who don’t toe their line.

We even do this to one another. Those women who don’t share our exact politics and perspectives are deemed bad feminists — or not feminist at all — and therefore ostracized. Where do we expect to get with this approach? How can we complain when we are treated this way by the left and by mainstream media, but turn around and do it ourselves to those who don’t fit our criteria of political purity?

Those who view themselves as political people — people who fight for justice and what’s right — need to remember that politics are for the people. Activism should be about fighting for truth and freedom and rights. It should not be about elitism or creating an exclusive club. Our ideologies are not more important than real people and real people’s lives. And whether or not a woman is politically pure, according to someone else’s standards, should not determine whether or not she is worthy of respect, whether she can participate in the women’s rights movement, or whether or not she should be treated with humanity and kindness. And the same goes for all people. Yes, feminism is for women, but that doesn’t mean men and men’s lives and rights don’t matter.

Everyone’s free speech matters. It’s all worth fighting for. There is no point in fighting for free speech only for those we like or agree with. Feminists make a grave mistake in failing to stand up for all free speech, and that includes internet censorship and new hate crime bills, like the legislation recently passed in Scotland, which created a new offence of “stirring up hatred” on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, or transgender identity. While it is baffling and insulting that sex was not included in this list of protected categories, feminists are wrong to believe the solution is simply to add protection for women within this kind of legislation. “Stirring up hatred” is far too vague a thing to criminalize. And considering that we’ve seen, in the UK, people like Harry Miller investigated by the police for Tweets, accused essentially of WrongThink for tweeting a limerick critical of gender identity ideology, which was subsequently recorded as a hate incident, we need to be incredibly vigilant about ensuring we don’t go down that path, or allow this kind of thing to become practice in our own countries.

We should be able to see, now, how focusing on particular “identities” deemed to be marginalized and therefore in need of protection from “hate” leads to curtailment of free speech. Hate is not always a neutral fact, it is often a matter of opinion. I have argued, for example, that the word ‘“TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist) exists to vilify, discriminate against, and target women with violence and harassment. Based on standard definitions, it would constitute hate speech. Yet I don’t want the use of the term “TERF” be criminalized. My preference is to have open conversations. I don’t believe we need protection from words, no matter how upsetting or offensive those words may be. This approach only makes us vulnerable. If we want to protect our own speech, we need to protect all speech — even speech we might view as “misogynist,” “racist,” “Islamophobic,” or otherwise offensive to our sensibilities and political views. It’s much better to discuss such ideas and words openly than live in a world where some topics of conversation, ideologies, beliefs, facts, or arguments are untouchable.

Almost every talk or event I have done with regard to the topic of gender identity has been threatened with cancellation. Few venues will agree to host such conversations to begin with, and those who do often pull out due to activist pressure or violent threats. Those who disagree with me refuse to engage in conversation or debate, insisting that simply allowing me to speak is dangerous or harms trans-identified people. This is nonsense. I speak about material reality and the rights of women and girls. But the fact that basic conversations about material reality and fundamental rights can, in 2021, be deemed unspeakable goes to show how quickly the tables can turn. And we need to be wary of that every time we deem someone bad, without considering their full humanity, when we refuse to listen or engage in conversation with someone simply because he or she has been labelled by others in a way that doesn’t suit us, when we call for another’s speech to be shut down, or when we support censorship.

In Canada, we thought we lived in a progressive country, and that our rights were protected. We would not have imagined feminist speech be criminalized. Yet here we are: faced with an internet hate speech bill that will surely limit our ability to speak basic truths. The bill will include the creation of a new regulator who will be responsible for enforcing the new statutory definition of hate, including requiring online platforms to take down illegal content within 24 hours. When things like “misgendering” or “deadnaming” have been determined to be “hate speech” and when criticizing or questioning that notion that one can simply identify as a woman, regardless of being male, is said to equate to violence or harm, these kinds of bills should terrify us. Yet I suspect, just as with Bill C-16, we will hear little from Canadian feminists, many of whom are either too afraid to speak out, or too stuck in their politics to speak out about something they fear may cause them to be viewed as aligned with those they believe are political enemies.

In places like China, radical feminists have been censored from speaking, even anonymously, online. In the West, radical and gender critical feminists are seeing their forums banned from social media platforms like Reddit. But it isn’t only radical feminist speech that is being removed from the internet, it’s Donald Trump fans, white supremacists, those deemed conspiracy theorists, and more. And while I’m certain many feminists could put forth arguments to explain why their forums and words should be permitted online, but not MAGA acolytes or those critical of vaccines, but this is where we’ve got it wrong. Because this is all about perspective: those who wish to ban the gender critical subreddit see those women as dangerous — akin to Nazis — touting myths about trans people and spreading hate. It might not be true, but that is the perception of many, just as it is the perception of some that all Trump voters are evil racists who hate women and immigrants or that those critical of the Covid response are spreading conspiracy theories and endangering people’s health. The truth is rarely so simple, but the point is that there is no one in this world I trust to determine whose ideas are worth hearing and whose are worth being banned.

In Canada, I have required private security, body guards, and police escorts every time I give a talk about women’s rights. Approximately 700 people protested outside my talk at the Toronto Public Library in 2019. There was a petition demanding the library cancel the event. This petition was launched by a number of Canadian writers who accused me of disseminating “hate speech” and insinuated the group of women organizing the event was a “hate group.” They argued:

“There is a difference between denying free speech — and what is known as deplatforming, which is when you refuse to allow hate speech to be disseminated in your facility. This has been an effective tactic to stop those who capitalize on spreading hate speech, such as Meghan Murphy.”

They used Twitter’s decision to ban me as further justification for their claims. That’s right — self-declared leftists are putting trust in corporations to determine acceptable speech.

These writers threatened to no longer participate in TPL events should my talk go forward. The TPL did not comply — Vickery Bowles, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library, insisted on defending the mandate of public libraries — free expression — explaining, “We are a democratic institution and we are standing up for free speech.”

It is amazing how few stand up for and understand the importance of these values.

The petition asked, “Please, keep TPL safe for our most marginalized community members,” yet activists stood outside hurling threats and vitriol at anyone attempting to enter to library to attend the talk. Violent threats against women, apparently, don’t impede safety, so long as those threats are directed at “bad women.”

Last year, an event scheduled at Simon Fraser University was cancelled at the last minute after threats so violent that SFU’s security team determined they wouldn’t be able to guarantee the safety of attendees or staff. The event was moved to the Pan Pacific hotel, where young women stood outside with a cardboard guillotine with the words “TERFS and SWERFS step right up.”

I have had to file a police report in Vancouver after being followed around my neighbourhood by a local trans activist, Morgane Oger, who was the previous Vice President of the BC NDP and was a delegate representing the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March. My website has been attacked countless times by trans activists, and taken down; I have received obscene phone calls; I have received calls from the police, warning me about threats against my life. A panel discussion in Seattle I participated in last year got a bomb threat. Protesters disrupted the event to such an extent they had to be carried out by the police. I can’t even begin to compile the vile and terrifying things that have been said to me online and over email (which, apparently, are perfectly fine with our big tech overlords).

Yet, my biggest concern is that I won’t be able to speak the truth in Canada. That I won’t be able to write words like “men are not women” or refer to male predators as “he.” If we can’t speak the truth; if we can’t debate ideas, policy, legislation, and opinion; if we cannot argue in defense of our interests and rights, we have nothing. We are hooped.

Free speech is not just an important fight, it is the important fight. And the time to fight is now, before it’s too late. Rights are for everyone — they all matter. And I do hope we wake up before it’s too late.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her very beautiful dog.