December 15, 2023 - 1:00pm

Free speech is a serious matter. In some countries, expressing the wrong opinion can get someone imprisoned or killed. In the UK, two MPs have been murdered since 2016, demonstrating the need for protection of a very wide range of views. It highlights the importance of avoiding the kind of hyperbole that risks turning politicians with unexceptionable views into hate figures.

Earlier this week, the Conservative MP for Redditch, Rachel Maclean, revealed she had been reported to the police for refusing to pretend that a man in a wig is a woman. In the world certain activists would like us to inhabit, telling the truth about someone’s sex is now so grave an offence that it apparently merits the involvement of the law. 

In what appears to be an outbreak of common sense, West Mercia police have confirmed receiving a complaint but said it is not being treated as a crime. Perhaps the police have taken note of a statement by the Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, that Stonewall does not make the law in this country. But in the Britain of 2023, the fact that they have stood up for Maclean remains a surprise — and an exception. Because it comes after years in which police have pandered to the claims of trans activists, granting them exceptionality in what should be a free debate. 

Last month officers from Northumbria police asked a woman to attend an interview in Newcastle after she posted gender-critical comments on X, threatening to arrest her if she didn’t come voluntarily. One of the posts she was questioned about was a “daily reminder that transwomen are men” and a duty solicitor advised her about the wisdom of “curtailing” such sentiments in future. The woman, who is a football fan, has had her membership of Newcastle United suspended while she is being investigated.

Other women’s rights campaigners who have been questioned by the police include the founder of Standing for Women, Kellie-Jay Keen, who has faced violent protests at some of her rallies. She was interviewed under caution at a police station in Wiltshire in February after she spoke at a rally where signs declared “being a woman is not a crime” and accused the police of acting on behalf of trans activists. Feminists have repeatedly contrasted the readiness of officers to investigate legal speech with their apparent reluctance to make arrests when women face threats and assaults. 

The Maclean story began when she shared a post on X describing a Green parliamentary candidate, who now calls himself Melissa Poulton, in the neighbouring constituency of Bromsgrove as “a man who wears a wig and calls himself a ‘proud lesbian’”. Maclean added a comment to the effect that the Greens “don’t know what a woman is
 but the people of Bromsgrove certainly do”. She later deleted it, but the original post was perfectly accurate, given that Poulton was until recently a man called Matthew Viner. And it is noteworthy that people are often at their most strident when their arguments lack substance.  All the usual accusations — transphobia, dog-whistling, misgendering — have been thrown around by Poulton and supporters like Peter Tatchell. 

But trans activists have grown too accustomed to using the arm of the law to shut down debate. It is their attempt to make the price of expressing certain ideas, in this case the fact that human beings can’t change sex, unacceptably high. When politicians are afraid to say what they think, for fear of being shamed or reported to the police, the very foundations of democracy are under threat. While West Mercia police have correctly protected Maclean, all gender-critical feminists deserve the same safeguards.  

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.