SoA and English PEN state positions on online harassment of authors

SoA and English PEN state positions on online harassment of authors

The Society of Authors has said the membership organisation is "appalled at any kind of hate speech" but that it refrains from getting involved in individual cases of trolling, especially if an author hasn't asked for intervention.

The authors' organisation was responding after novelist Amanda Craig questioned whether professional bodies should be doing more to defend authors who are becoming targets for hate speech online, including receiving death threats for expressing their views.

English PEN, also criticised, has issued a broad statement condemning online harassment and supporting the right to hold and express strong views – provided such expression doesn't undermine others' human rights.

Craig, speaking after she was dropped as a judge by Myslexia for signing a letter defending J K Rowling, said she was "horrified" that bodies such as the Society of Authors, PEN and the RSL had "not stepped in" over recent abuse of the author for her views on gender and biological sex. 

Craig told The Bookseller: "What horrifies me is that the professional bodies–the Society of Authors, PEN, the Royal Society of Literature– have not stepped in to defend an author [Rowling]. Coming down on one side or the other on the trans issue is very, very difficult and that will take a long time to thrash out. But what seems very clear to me is that they're not doing the other side of their remit, which is to protect authors. That's what really is bad. Authors are suffering and being intimidated."

The Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon said the body was "appalled at any kind of hate speech", and she emphasised that the SoA is a signatory to the Commitment to Professional Behaviour in Publishing and has its own professional code which, she said, it "would urge everyone to abide by". 

But she added that while the organisation "provides support/a listening ear to members who are trolled if they wish to contact us",  it does "not get involved in individual debates or in disputes between authors".

"While we deplore bullying, trolling and ad hominem remarks, we don’t usually speak out publicly on individual cases of trolling, especially if we have not been asked by the author to do so. We do not find social media a sufficiently nuanced forum for such debates," Solomon said.

"If there were allegations of no-platforming or loss of positions due to particular views, we would not get involved in the detailed arguments but we may become involved if authors are removed for anything except the content of their books or issues related to the position lost. Again this is done on a case-by-case basis on behalf of our members and not through social media."

The SoA also "strongly campaigns" about morality clauses, she added, noting it has "been successful in having several publishers remove or modify these clauses". Also known as "reputation clauses", morality clauses are inserted into contracts, more frequently in the US, to allow publishers to drop authors should something in their past or future conduct come to light resulting in their "sustained, widespread condemnation"or similar.

English PEN declined to comment on Craig's criticism directly but the body directed The Bookseller to a new statement issued this week, co-signed by a number of its branches in the UK and internationally, on the topic of online harassment. In the statement PEN takes issue with online abuse, saying "a culture in which harassment has become the norm across the ideological spectrum is a culture that not only harms those directly affected, but damages public debate by suppressing and silencing voices – including those already underrepresented in public life – and degrades our wider discourse."

As well as generally condemning harassment online, PEN said in the statement it supports "the right to hold and express strong views" – but with the caveat "that such expression does not undermine the internationally recognised human rights of others, incite hatred, nor engender the threat or use of violence".

In the rigorous debate of different viewpoints, PEN emphasised, "we believe it is crucial to distinguish between meaningful criticism and gratuitous harassment (which degrades or intimidates a person or group)". But, as previously iterated in an earlier comment piece from English PEN director Daniel Gorman, the statement also reads: "Freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of speech."

The statement can be read on English PEN's website. It contrasts with its former director Jo Glanville's comments on the issue, who, writing for The Bookseller this week, said she believes "all writers and publishers should be speaking out in support of J K Rowling, no matter where they stand on the transgender issue: whether they believe like Jeanette Winterson and fellow signatories that 'transwomen are women’ or, like J K Rowling, that ‘if sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased’."

Glanville said: "The treatment of Rowling is an attempt to censor, by intimidation as well as by discrediting her opinions as hate speech and discrimination. While it may not, fortunately, be possible to silence one of the most successful writers in the world, there are others whose livelihoods are at risk for daring to voice similar views. Anyone in the business of publishing or writing should defend Rowling’s right to express her opinions in support of the principle of freedom of expression. It is the principle that enables every writer and publisher who signed the statement in support of the trans and non-binary community to do their work – and also to sign such a statement."

The Royal Society of Literature, also name-checked by Craig for its reluctance to get involved, commented: "The RSL does not comment on individual fellows’ statements or disputes. We are a charity for the advancement of literature with a broad and diverse fellowship, not a professional body representing individual writers."