Edinburgh University has for a second time allowed protestors to prevent the screening of the documentary film “Adult Human Female.” It was initially to be screened in December 2022, but cancelled when demonstrators occupied the university buildings. The rescheduled showing was arranged for 26 April 2023, but prevented once more by a large group of protestors.
Protestors blocked off the entrances and physically stopped anyone from getting inside. The event was once again cancelled.
The protestors of course regard this as a victory for the prevention of intolerance. A spokesman told the Times that
“Their argument is that trans women are the problem and are men in disguise and that is a lie. It is tarring a whole community and demonising them. Free speech is fine for everybody but it does not extend to the intolerant and hateful.”
There is nothing in this quote to suggest that the spokesman had in fact watched the film. But what is more remarkable is the spokesman’s claim that free speech “does not extend to the intolerant or hateful.”
As we have said before, the relevant provision is Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as given effect in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 10 protects freedom of expression, but not unfettered freedom of expression – the old chestnut that there is no freedom to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. It is one of the most detailed Articles and reads as follows:
- Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
- The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
In the first three paragraphs of his judgment in R (Miller) v College of Policing & CC Humberside  EWHC 225 (Admin), Julian Knowles J summarised three famous citations on free speech:
- In his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm (1945) George Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
- In R v Central Independent Television plc  Fam 192, 202-203, Hoffmann LJ said that: “… a freedom which is restricted to what judges think to be responsible or in the public interest is no freedom. Freedom means the right to publish things which government and judges, however well motivated, think should not be published. It means the right to say things which ‘right-thinking people’ regard as dangerous or irresponsible. This freedom is subject only to clearly defined exceptions laid down by common law or statute.”
- Also much quoted are the words of Sedley LJ in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999) 7 BHRC 375, :
“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative … Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having … “
That of course does not mean that freedom of speech is unlimited. It may be limited where a legitimate aim is pursued, although as was said in R (Ngole) v University of Sheffield  EWCA Civ 1127,
The existence of a broad legitimate aim is a mere threshold to the key decision in this case, as in almost all cases it must be. Such a legitimate aim must have limits. It cannot extend too far. In our view it cannot extend to preclude legitimate expression of views simply because many might disagree with those views: that would indeed legitimise what in the United States has been described as a “heckler’s veto”.
This is particularly so when the speech in question, here the film Adult Human Female, is itself an expression of protected views.
Proportionality is key to any decision to limit free speech. In Handyside v United Kingdom (1976) 1 EHRR 737 the European Court of Human Rights said at :
“Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. Subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10, it is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’. This means, amongst other things, that every ‘formality’, ‘condition’, ‘restriction’ or ‘penalty’ imposed in this sphere must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.”
There are two issues here, in terms of freedom of expression (I am not considering here the law on academic freedom, but only human rights. For those wanting further reading around academic freedom, the law in England and Wales can be found here and Scottish law here.)
The first is whether the film Adult Human Female really is as offensive as the protestors claim. That in my view is inconceivable – it discusses proposed changes to the law from the perspective of one of the affected groups, namely women.
The second is that even if a sector of the population disagrees with it, feels personally affected or is offended by it, this intimidation is disproportionate and anti-democratic. A protest that does not prevent the event from taking place must be possible.
It is noteworthy that one of the groups who are highlighted as anti-democratic in the film are UCU. A number of the academic interviewees express disbelief that a union for those whose lives are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge should behave in such an anti-intellectual way. I do wonder whether UCU’s enthusiastic support for the protests in Edinburgh is to spare its own blushes should their students watch the film and find out how spineless their tutors are when faced with intellectual disagreement.
Freedom of expression is valuable. If the protestors’ freedom of expression were similarly impaired by mob justice, they would be outraged. They should be careful what they wish for.