JK Rowling: Silencing speech that offends you is standing with tyrants

Author J.K. Rowling accepted an award Monday at the PEN literary awards gala in New York. PEN is a group that explicitly promotes free speech and freedom of expression so it’s not surprising that topic would be the focus of her remarks. Even so, Rowling’s defense of Donald Trump’s right to speak and her rejection of claims of offense as a way to silence critics, i.e. the creation of so-called safe spaces, may surprise a few people. Time magazine reports:

“My critics are at liberty to claim that I am trying to convert children to Satanism, and I’m free to explain that I’m exploring human nature and morality, or to say ‘You’re an idiot,’ depending on which side of the bed I go out on that day.”

“It seems that unless a commentator or television program, channel, or newspaper reflects exactly the complainer’s worldview, it must be guilty of bias or corruption,” she said. “Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me, a moderate and a liberal, most uncomfortable.”

“Only last year, we saw a petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the U.K. It garnered half a million signatures,” Rowling said. Though the audience responded with applause, Rowling continued in earnest. “Just a moment: Now, I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot.”

Rowling continued her point saying, “Unless we take that absolute position without caveats or apologies we have set foot upon a road with only one destination.” The alternative leads to attempts to silence speech based on feelings, “If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral grounds on which to argue that those offended by feminism, or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes.”

Rowling wrapped up her lecture by suggesting anyone who seeks to silence someone else on the grounds that their speech is offensive has sided with tyrants, “If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed a line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification.”

This is obviously not a position compatible with the left’s recent insistence on safe spaces, i.e. places where opposing voices can not be heard lest they do harm to tender feelings. As someone who enjoyed the Harry Potter books, it’s good to see that Rowling, though obviously not a conservative, is nevertheless firmly at odds with the growing number of college-aged progressives who find it acceptable to silence, shout down or disinvite anyone who disagrees with them. Hopefully young fans of her books will get the message.

You can see Rowling deliver the speech at 1:49:00 in this clip. Her remarks about free speech begin about 1:50:30:

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Jazz Shaw 1:01 PM on April 01, 2023