The entire, pointless, offensive debate over “transgender pronouns” and everything else which goes along with it is occupying a lot of media bandwidth these days, but there’s one aspect of the discussions which remains widely ignored. It’s always unpopular with the SJW forces to ask about the rights of others when these various grievances are listed, but what of the free speech rights of those being imposed on by demands of these special snowflakes? For at least the second time, Eugene Volokh tackles that question today in relation to a Portland, Oregon teacher who has received a sizable settlement over “damages” incurred because her colleagues refused to use the plural term “they” to refer to her.
I blogged last week about the New York City Commission on Human Rights legal guidance on transgender pronouns: Among other things, the commission stated that employers, landlords, businesses and professionals had to use employees’, tenants’, customers’ and clients’ preferred pronouns, including “they/them/theirs or ze/hir,” or face the risk of huge civil liability. Now the Oregonian (Casey Parks) reports on a settlement in one such case in Portland. (I saw a copy of the complaint and the settlement agreement, and some of the quotes are from there.)
Leo Soell, born Brina, and a schoolteacher in the Gresham-Barlow (Oregon) School District, “do[es] not identify as male or female but rather transmasculine and genderqueer, or androgynous.” Soell wants people to call Soell “they,” and submitted a complaint to the school district objecting (in part) that other schoolteachers engaged in “harassment” by, among other things, “refusing to call me by my correct name and gender to me or among themselves” (emphasis added), as well as posting “messages on Facebook that denigrate transgender people.”
I’ll just start out by saying – without apologies – that I’m not going to be bothered with trying to wrap my brain around referring to Ms. Soell as “they” in the singular or doing the frustrating dance that Volokh goes through to keep writing her last name over and over again rather than risk offending someone with a pronoun. I have no idea what a “transmasculine and genderqueer, or androgynous” person is supposed to be at this point and frankly I don’t care. She was born “Brina” and I’m not going to second guess the wisdom of either her parents or basic biology.
But that’s really the point of what Volokh gets to in this lengthy and excellent analysis. You certainly have the right to refer to yourself however you wish. Hey… it’s a free country, or at least it used to be. But the fact that you’re exercising your rights of free speech does not mean that you automatically inherit the right to limit mine. We’re not talking about racial or religious epithets here or any other sort of pejorative terminology. These are basic rules of the language. If you want to invent some new language to use with your friends, feel free. I’ve never felt compelled to sue anyone at a Star Trek convention for speaking Klingon. But they are similarly not free to insist that I learn and use Klingon or face punitive action in court.
Volokh offers another great example when he asks if the Amish should be allowed to insist that everyone use “thee” instead of “you” or “they” when speaking to them. (They don’t do that, by the way.) If we fail to do so, are we violating their religious rights? No, we are not. So congrats to Ms. Soell for managing to wring sixty large out of her school district and bend their rights of free speech to her will. But don’t try bringing that show around the rest of the country because we’re not buying it.