Graham Linehan was lying in bed on a Sunday morning in December when his kids yelled at him that there was someone at the door. He threw on what he’d call a dressing gown (and what I’d call a bathrobe), and headed to the front door, where he saw saw an officer with the Norwich Police Department.
The officer asked if he could come in. Linehan initially refused and asked what this visit was all about. What it was all about, the officer explained, was Twitter.
Linehan invited him in.
An Irish comedy writer living in England, Linehan is best known as the creator of well-loved television shows Father Ted and The IT Crowd. But recently, Linehan became something of a Twitter activist, using the platform to weigh in on a fraught and often toxic ongoing debate in British society and politics.
The debate, at its heart, is about what makes someone a man or a woman. According to the UK’s 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA), people over the age of 18 are permitted to officially change their gender under the law if they’ve been both diagnosed with gender dysphoria and have spent at least two years living as their desired gender. They are also required to provide evidence of their transition to a Gender Recognition Panel, which then issues a Gender Recognition Certificate. Many trans people say this is an overly cumbersome—and expensive—barrier. These provisions, however, may soon change, as Parliament is considering reforming the GRA so that all that is required for a legal gender change is self-declaration. If you say you’re a woman, a man, or nonbinary, that’s what you are.
While reforming the law is largely, but not entirely, supported by trans people and their allies, supporters have faced fierce resistance from a number of feminists who are concerned that predatory males will use self-id to gain access to female-only spaces. They point to the rare but serious examples of trans women who have attacked women in sex-segregated spaces, such as Karen White, a convicted sex offender who assaulted two inmates while housed at a women’s prison.
On the other side, trans people and their allies argue that self-determination will improve the lives of trans people. “At the moment, trans people have to endure a long and demeaning process to ‘prove’ their gender identity,” according to Stonewall, an LGBTQ advocacy group in favor of the changes. “It’s not just distressing, it’s complex, costly and inaccessible to many trans people.” Reforming the GRA would lower these barriers.
This debate is largely taking place online (where, naturally, the level of virulence is ramped up), but it’s left the realm of social media plenty. During a period in which the government was soliciting comments on the proposed changes, a woman purchased a billboard in Liverpool that displayed the dictionary definition of the term “woman.” “Woman,” the billboard read, “noun; adult human female.” The billboard was only up for a little while before a prominent queer activist and family physician named Adrian Harrop complained to the billboard company, saying it made transgender people feel unsafe. The billboard was quickly taken down.
It was also Harrop who sent the police to Graham Linehan’s house.
The UK, unlike the US, has robust hate speech laws. In addition to banning derogatory speech on the basis of someone’s race, ethnicity, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, the 2003 Communications Act banned online communication that would cause “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.” With that act, arguing, trolling, or posting anything that could be perceived as remotely offensive became punishable under the law. And the law is enforced. In April, for instance, a 19-year-old woman was convicted of "sending a grossly offensive message" for posting the lyrics to a rap song on Instagram in tribute to a 13-year-old who had died in a traffic accident. (The lyrics included the n-word, which she failed to redact.)
Graham Linehan didn’t post anything about Adrian Harrop that would be considered offensive to most people. He didn’t use slurs or, for that matter, curse words. But the two men clearly oppose each other and frequently stir up fights or drag the other via Twitter.
The police didn’t tell Linehan which specific tweets Harrop complained about, but shortly before the police visited Linehan’s house, Harrop had appeared in a televised debate with Posie Parker, a feminist writer who is opposed to changing the GRA. Parker has been banned from several social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and the British site Mumsnet for misgendering trans women, and her conversation with Harrop, which aired on Sky News, was heated. Harrop and Parker clearly dislike each other, and neither made any attempt to hide it.
After Linehan saw the debate, he posted a link to the video, tweeting, “Have a look at this again and ask yourself why Parker is banned from various platforms, while Harrop isn’t. Could it be anything to do with...male privilege? Could it have anything to do with men deciding what women are and are not allowed to say?” The next day, the police dropped in at his house.
After explaining to Linehan why he was there, the police officer—whom Linehan says was polite and friendly—asked Linehan if he would stop engaging with Harrop. Linehan told him he had no intention of stopping, the officer left, and Linehan immediately tweeted about what had just happened. The whole episode, he says, took about 15 minutes, and the police never told him which tweet Harrop found so offensive.
Linehan says he is sure that is was his tweet about the Sky News debate that prompted Harrop to contact the police. Harrop, however, says that it was another tweet, which Linehan posted on November 8, that led him to contact the authorities. In that tweet, Linehan alleged that Harrop “threatened women, doxxed them, called them bitches, suggested they were drunks, mocked their mental health, etc.”
In a written statement, Harrop claimed that Linehan mischaracterized his actions. “Mr. Linehan has made a range of unfounded and defamatory accusations against me,” he wrote. “Mr. Linehan made direct reference to me having threatened and harassed women, and having ‘doxxed’ them—a specific allegation relating to the revelation of confidential information about people that they have deliberately sought to keep private. This is a grossly inaccurate and unfair mischaracterisation of my conduct.” He added that by alleging that Harrop doxed women, Linehan, who has over 600,000 followers, put Harrop and his family at risk.
Linehan, however, defends his allegation and provided me with screenshots of Harrop revealing the legal name and position of a woman who opposes the GRA reforms on Twitter. The tweets have since been deleted but, Harrop wrote to the woman, “Simple solution here [woman’s name and position]. Delete your material off Twitter. Everything. Delete your profile + remove yourself from the platform. Do that + I will remove all tweets with references to your name + job as will the others w/screenshots of your info on Mumsnet.”
While Twitter can be just as poisonous in the United States as it is in the United Kingdom, the police are unlikely to get involved here, largely due to the First Amendment, which—outside of libel, slander, threats, child pornography, inciting violence, and shouting fire in a crowded theater—protects nearly all forms of expression, including what in the UK would be considered hate speech.
When I asked the Seattle Police Department what it would take for the SPD to get involved in a spat like Linehan and Harrop’s, a spokesperson said, “It would take a lot. We understand that social media is a place where people can have likely debates. Sometimes it’s toxic and verbally abusive, in which case, our recommendation is to unplug. Don’t feed the trolls.”
But that doesn’t mean anything goes. The SPD will start investigating if someone makes threats “that a responsible person would find alarming,” said the spokesperson. “There is a very firm line,” he added. “When someone is making credible threats, we start investigating.”
Shortly after the officer left Linehan’s house, he emailed the police department asking for clarification. What, exactly, was so offensive, so threatening, about his tweets that warranted a visit from an officer? He hadn’t threatened to harm anyone. In response, a sergeant with Norfolk Constabulary wrote back: “Whilst we recognise that there is Freedom of Speech in the UK, it is important that the use of Social Media respects diversity and takes into consideration the feelings of others.”
And failing to be considerate of others in the UK can have serious consequences. In 2016, according to The Times of London, UK police arrested an average of nine people a day for posting content online that someone, somewhere, considered offensive. In all, over 3,300 Brits were detained and questioned in 2016, a 50 percent increase from two years before. And the numbers have likely gone up since then because the government, according to the paper, “announced a national police hub to crack down on hateful material online.”
Of course, what's hateful and what's not is all in the eye of the tweeter. But local police departments seem to be complying with this directive. In September, the official South Yorkshire Police account tweeted, “In addition to reporting hate crime, please report non-crime hate incidents, which can include things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing. Hate will not be tolerated in South Yorkshire. Report it and put a stop to it.” This tweet was widely mocked; as one tweeter responded: “Non-crime-hate-incidents' is a bit wordy. Might I suggest you condense it. I think 'thought crime' has a nice ring, don’t ya think?”
Linehan’s December visit from the police was not actually his first run-in with authorities over social media. In October, he was reported to the West Yorkshire Police for referring to Stephanie Hayden, a transgender woman, as “he” as well as tweeting Hayden’s “deadname,” or the name she was born with. Hayden is currently suing Linehan and so he declined to comment on this case, but he’s not unequivocally opposed to the policing of free speech. In fact, as many commentators have pointed out, Linehan has been known to celebrate when people he disagrees with are contacted by the law or kicked off of social media. When Scottish YouTube comic Mark Meechan, known online as Count Dankula, was arrested, convicted, and fined 800 EUR for posting a video of a dog doing a “Heil Hitler” salute, Linehan tweeted, “The guy is alt right. This is what they do, sneak fascism and hatred in under the guise of irony. I don’t think he could go to jail, but I’m happy the court saw through it.”
When asked if his own recent visit from the police has made him reconsider his support for hate speech statutes, Linehan said no. In the case of Count Dankula, “hate speech laws were working just as they were supposed to,” he said. When it comes to his own case, however, he thinks police involvement was an overreach as well as poor use of police resources. And, really, nothing much has come of the visit. Linehan hasn’t been charged with a crime or received any kind of citation, and he hasn’t stopped tweeting about Adrian Harrop, either. In his last tweet about Harrop, from December 14, he accused Harrop of using the police as his own personal “goon squad.” The battle between the two of them, like the battle over the GRA, is clearly far from over.
For his part, Harrop sees this as part of the fight for trans rights. “Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are valid,” he wrote in his statement. “Every person, without exception, irrespective of their gender identity, ought to have the freedom to express themselves and live their lives in an honest and genuine way, entirely free from the fear of harassment and exclusion."