Settle down with a cup of tea while I recount a sorry tale of crude political censorship in our capital city – once home to the free expression of ideas that would change the world, now a place where it seems only council-approved views are allowed to be aired in public. In January, a group of concerned adults organised a public meeting in Portobello Community Centre to discuss the teaching of gender identity in schools.
Two years ago, the Scottish Government published guidance for schools on how best to support transgender young people in schools. The advice is not statutory, so schools aren’t obliged to use it, but for those that do, its standpoint is very clear.
For example, it advises teachers to be aware that “not every child will identify as the sex they were assigned at birth” – a controversial assertion given that the sex of an infant is observed at birth, not decided by the midwife. And in a section that still chills me every time I read the guidance, it asserts that chest binders used to flatten a girl’s breasts can have “a positive impact on a young person's mental health so staff should allow a young person to decide for themselves about whether or not to wear a binder”.
A few days before the meeting was to take place, the organisers received an email from the Wash House charity which runs the community centre, cancelling the event, citing “the significant level of negative attention” it had generated as the reason. It seems that much of that “negative attention” had been generated by trans activists on social media, accusing the organisers of transphobia.
Determined to have their say, the group asked their local councillor, Jane Meagher, for her help to reschedule the meeting. The parents had contacted her last October when the idea for a meeting was first floated, and were delighted when she helped them with arrangements for a meeting on Tuesday, March 14, and agreed to attend.
Maggie Mellon, a renowned social work expert with 40 years’ experience, was booked as the guest speaker and the (free) tickets were quickly snapped up. Then a few days ago, the council demanded £600 plus VAT to cover the cost of hiring private security guards as a condition for the meeting go ahead.
Andrew McTaggart, the “Acting Up LL Service Manager (North East – Libraries)”, emailed the group to explain that while the council “are conscious that everyone has the right to freedom of expression”, this had to be in accordance with relevant public safety requirements. He went on: “The assessment which has been undertaken for the Portobello event identified that security staff would be required in order to mitigate the risks associated with holding this event.
“Our community room at Portobello Library can be used by anyone in accordance with the terms and conditions but if any group wishes to use the group for a public event, then there are responsibilities that must be met to ensure the safety of all involved. I hope that you have found this response helpful.”
It seems that the council had received complaints from trans activists, some of whom took to social media to suggest the meeting would be used to “spread hate” and to encourage a protest against it. Instead of upholding the rights of local residents to hold a public meeting in safety, the city council decided to make them pay for their freedom of speech and their own protection. By taking the side of the bullies – because that is what the complainers are – the council probably hoped that the organisers would slink away, unable to find the hundreds of pounds required to enjoy their inalienable rights as citizens.
The council’s cunning plan backfired. It had not counted on the army of women in Edinburgh and elsewhere who are fed up being told that their mainstream views are hateful. Within hours of a fundraiser going live, more than enough money had been raised to meet the council’s undemocratic demand. The meeting will go ahead on Tuesday, but at what cost?
Council leader Cammy Day tried to brush aside criticism of his administration by inferring that the organisers were somehow to blame for the threats to public safety. He told a newspaper that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, “but equally that must be done within the law and in line with relevant public safety requirements”.
There is nothing unlawful about a group of parents holding a public meeting in their local library to discuss issues affecting the welfare of their children. Surely it is those who threaten to disrupt public safety who risk breaking the law.
It may be that in today’s public discourse, facts are relative and scientific evidence can be dismissed as hate speech. But Councillor Day and his bureaucrats can’t escape the truth, no matter what price they try to put on free speech.
In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of adolescent girls seeking help to change their sexual identity to male. In my small social circle alone, I know of three girls currently going through such trauma. Whatever the reason, be it social contagion, fear of their growing body or peer pressure, there is a public health crisis in our schools.
If parents can’t meet freely to discuss this, then we are surely on the slippery road to municipal authoritarianism. Overblown? Perhaps. But this week, Edinburgh City Council has shown that there is a price to pay for daring to speak out.