There is no such thing as the absolute right to free speech or free expression – not even in the United States of America. The US Supreme Court formulated the Miller Test as far back as 1973 which defined boundaries as to what forms of expression may constitute obscenity (see Miller v California 413 US 15 (1973)).
This country is (certainly) not America when it comes to the issue of freedom of speech. Although Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (as implemented by the Scotland and Human Rights Acts 1998) do protect the individual’s right to freedom of conscience, thought etc and expression, there is recognition that the State may have good reason to restrict these rights (known as the margin of appreciation).
In an earlier Blog, I discussed the fact that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that denial of the Holocaust is not a belief which should be protected by law.
A famous example of the margin of appreciation being utilised (and approved by the European Court of Human Rights) in this country was the decision of Wingrove v UK . Here the film, Visions of Ecstasy, used highly sexualised imagery in its depiction of religious themes. Such a presentation would have been highly offensive to devout Roman Catholics (and a breach of the then, very strict blasphemy laws). Consequently, the British Board of Film Classification (the UK censor) refused to allow the film to be released. In this case, it was felt that someone’s artistic freedom of expression would cause grave offence to another group of people.
Wingrove is a really a moot point these days given that, in 2008, the UK reformed its blasphemy laws and the uncut version of Visions of Ecstasy was given a theatrical release (with an 18 certificate) in 2012. Yet it remains an interesting example of the tension between diametrically opposed viewpoints and how the State can be forced to mediate between these.
I was reminded about freedom of speech only this week when an Employment Tribunal put clear limits on an individual’s right to say certain things. The individual lost the case, but its aftermath has stirred up a hornet’s nest of recriminations, with even JK Rowling weighing in (on the employee’s side).
The case in question was Forstater v 1) CGD Europe 2) Centre for Global Development 3) Masood Ahmed Case No 2200909/2019 18 December 2019. It involved Maya Forstater who was engaged by the Centre for Global Development (a Think Tank) as a Visiting Fellow from January 2015 to 31 December 2018. Ms Forstater is a professional researcher and writer on public policy, tax and business. She provided services in this respect to the Think Tank. She is also had an active social media presence on Twitter.
Ms Forstater had issued a number of tweets about UK Government policy in which she questioned the right of trans females to call themselves women. Several of her colleagues complained about these and stated that they were ‘transphobic’ in nature. When her contract with the Think Tank was not renewed, she took the view that this decision had been motivated by her statements on Twitter. She, therefore, took the view that she was being subjected to direct discrimination by reason of her beliefs in terms of Sections 4, 10 and 13 of the Equality Act 2010. Furthermore, Forstater argued that her rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and expression (Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention) had been breached.
As Employment Judge Tayler noted:
“When questioned during live evidence the Claimant [Ms Forstater] stated that biological males cannot be women. She considers that if a trans woman says she is a woman that is untrue, even if she has a Gender Recognition Certificate. On the totality of the Claimant’s evidence it was clear that she considers there are two sexes, male and female, there is no spectrum in sex and there are no circumstances whatsoever in which a person can change from one sex to another, or to being of neither sex. She would generally seek to be polite to trans persons and would usually seek to respect their choice of pronoun but would not feel bound to; mainly if a trans person who was not assigned female at birth was in a “woman’s space”, but also more generally. If a person has a Gender Recognition Certificate this would not alter the Claimant’s position. The Claimant made it clear that her view is that the words man and woman describe a person’s sex and are immutable. A person is either one or the other, there is nothing in between and it is impossible to change form one sex to the other.”
In dismissing Ms Forstater’s claim, Employment Judge Tayler stated:
“However, I consider that the Claimant’s view, in its absolutist nature, is incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others. She goes so far as to deny the right of a person with a Gender Recognition Certificate to be the sex to which they have transitioned. I do not accept the Claimant’s contention that the Gender Recognition Act produces a mere legal fiction. It provides a right, based on the assessment of the various interrelated convention rights, for a person to transition, in certain circumstances, and thereafter to be treated for all purposes as the being of the sex to which they have transitioned.”
A link to the Forstater judgement can be found below:
In arriving at his judgement, Employment Judge Tayler was influenced by an earlier decision which defined the scope of a person’s beliefs and whether they ought to be protected.
Mr Justice Burton sitting alone in the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Grainger v Nicolson Appeal No. UKEAT/0219/09  formulated some pretty clear guidelines about what constitutes a belief capable of protection under the UK equality laws. His Honour stated that for a belief to be capable of protection, it must satisfy the following requirements:
- It must be genuinely held.
- It must be a belief and not … an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
- It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
- It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
We may not have heard the last of Ms Forstater who may well be given to leave to appeal against Employment Judge Tayler’s judgement.
A link to the decision in Grainger v Nicolson can be found below:
A link to a report about the Forstater decision can be found below on the BBC News website:
Maya Forstater lost her job after she questioned government plans to let people declare their own gender.
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 21 December 2019