Demands to Cancel J.K. Rowling Are Latest Example of ‘Community Censorship,’ Analysts Say

By Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Reporter
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
July 21, 2022 Updated: July 28, 2022

The demands of transgender activists and other progressives for Warner Bros. to stop producing films based on the fictional worlds of author J.K. Rowling, and for the studio to dissociate itself officially from Rowling and her work, are among the latest efforts to censor viewpoints and sources by exerting enormous public pressure on the corporations behind them, experts on censorship say.

For corporations, the reputational and financial costs of failing to comply with such demands run so high that they cannot afford to ignore them, they say. For activists, such “community censorship” can prove an effective way around the protections that the First Amendment confers on controversial speech.

Rowling—the author of the seven “Harry Potter” books that have sold more than half a billion copies worldwide and given rise to a $7.7 billion cinematic franchise—has come under attack for public statements insisting on the reality of sex differences and for comments labeled transphobic by her critics.

After the firing of a researcher from a British think tank in 2019 for posting on Twitter that “it is impossible to change sex,” Rowling came to the researcher’s defense with tweets questioning whether women should be forced out of their jobs “for stating that sex is real.”

These public stances have stirred up online mobs against Rowling. One of the latest salvos in the controversy is a June 13 opinion piece in Newsweek written by Fox Fisher, who is identified in the author’s bio as “a brown, queer, pansexual, non-binary, trans masculine artist, author, filmmaker, and educator.”

Fisher says that “it’s been difficult to get excited about any new films because of the anti-trans views of the writer. The big question is how Warner Bros., the studio behind the films, can square its patronage of J.K. Rowling with an increasingly vigilant Potter fan base.”

Acknowledging that Warner Bros. has taken modest steps in the past to chasten Rowling, who was mostly absent from the recent 25th-anniversary celebrations of the film franchise, Fisher complains about a statement released by the studio calling Rowling “one of the world’s most accomplished storytellers.”

Denouncing Rowling for a stance that “fuels the current moral panic happening in the U.K. n trans rights,” Fisher calls on the studio not to have anything to do with Rowling, and even to castigate her in the strongest and most public way.

“Warner should publicly denounce her, buy her out of the films or even decide not to make any more while she remains at the helm of the franchise,” Fisher writes, before concluding that the studio’s association with Rowling “will never sit well with trans people and their allies, and their voices are becoming louder.”

harry potter
Mattel’s Harry Potter action figures are displayed at the Mattel showroom at the 2004 Toy Fair in New York City on Feb. 15, 2004. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

A Worsening Trend

Experts who follow censorship in the realms of media, publishing, and film and television see the fierce public pressures exerted in this type of online campaign as an increasingly common tactic on the part of would-be censors. While the First Amendment prevents the government from enacting laws that suppress free speech, corporate sponsors are well within their legal rights to drop an author or choose not to produce a work based on a given source, and they are highly susceptible to the financial pressures that an effort at cancellation may bring to bear.

“Some may call these pressures ‘cancel culture,’ the notion that people’s beliefs or views are simply beyond the pale of respectability. I would refer to it as community censorship. I mean certain political, cultural, and social forces trying to triangulate to impose pressure on the corporate entity to either drop the author, or, in this case, to cease promoting that author’s work,” Clay Calvert, a professor of law and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, told The Epoch Times.

Questions of free speech and creative freedom have grown more complex as the focus of the new censorship has evolved. The targets of community censorship go beyond just people accused of having engaged in ethically questionable or illegal behavior—such as Woody Allen, whose publisher Hachette Book Group dropped plans to publish his book “Apropos of Nothing” in March 2020 in the wake of allegations that he had sexually abused Dylan Farrow as a child—and encompass individuals who have merely expressed views that are unpopular in certain quarters, Calvert acknowledged.

“A private entity, such as a publisher, clearly has the right to drop or author or choose not to publish because of, as in Woody Allen’s case, alleged sexual impropriety with a child. But the bigger question has to do with cases like Rowling’s, which is different from the Woody Allen case because it’s about a viewpoint that she holds on transgender issues. There are certain views today [for which] there’s going to be payback and repercussions, and that disincentivizes the expression of those views,” Calvert added.

“So that’s where the chilling effect on free speech comes in if you are an author who holds a view that doesn’t fit in with what are perceived as normal views” according to certain contemporary standards, he continued.

More actions like the campaign targeting Rowling are likely in months to come, as the vocal nature of a certain segment of the “Harry Potter” fan base reflects a reality that increasingly characterizes most, if not all, global media franchises, experts say.

“Most of us don’t watch stories without thinking about what they mean for the world and for our own experience. So to pretend that there’s a neutral story seems perhaps nearsighted or overly simplistic,” Ashley Hinck, a professor of communications at Xavier University, told The Epoch Times.

“Harry Potter fans aren’t unique in this regard. All of us are increasingly using the media that we’re fans of to do politics in the real world, whether it’s Harry Potter, or Marvel, or Star Wars. People are increasingly turning to the fan communities that they’re a part of in order to raise money for charity,” Hinck observed, lamenting the vitriol, ad hominem attacks, and threats that so often attend online controversies among fan bases.

“We shouldn’t be harassing or threatening other people. So I think the fan community is invested in that; they’ve spent a long time trying to build civic norms around how to talk about political issues,” Hinck said.

The Firing of Grant Napear

As a further example of this gathering trend, Calvert pointed to the decision of Sacramento, California, radio station KHTK Sports’ corporate owner to fire afternoon talk show host and personality Grant Napear in May 2020, after Napear sent out a tweet stating, “ALL LIVES MATTER . . . EVERY SINGLE ONE!!!”

Napear sent the tweet in response to former Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins asking what Napear thought about Black Lives Matter, which got national attention in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

Epoch Times Photo
A man holds a Black Lives Matter sign as a police car burns during a protest in Atlanta, Ga., on May 29, 2020. Demonstrations are being held across the U.S. after George Floyd died in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

After Napear’s tweet, Bonneville International, the corporate owner of KHTK, released a statement saying that the company was “saddened” by Napear’s “particularly insensitive” comments and announcing that “After reviewing the matter carefully, we have made the difficult decision to part ways with Grant.”

After his firing, Napear’s attorney, Matthew Ruggles, initiated a wrongful termination lawsuit in October 2021 against Bonneville International, seeking compensation for lost income and for a decision that some view as having wrecked his career. Bonneville is trying to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Napear’s termination violates not one but two California statutes, the Fair Employment Housing Act and the Labor Code, Ruggles told The Epoch Times. Ruggles is currently in the discovery phase of the litigation against Bonneville and expects the matter to go to trial in 2023 or possibly in 2024. Bonneville and those who support its decision have severely misconstrued Napear’s use of the phrase “All lives matter” and imposed illegal strictures on employees’ freedom of expression, Ruggles said.

“They interpret the phrase as a repudiation of the notion the black lives matter, which is completely ridiculous and perverse. We alleged that under the California Labor Code, it is illegal for a company to either have a policy that prohibits any particular expression, or prohibits people from expressing their politics. And to the extent that the tweet was a counter-statement, it was a political statement, and that was protected by the law,” Ruggles argued.

In Ruggles’s view, Bonneville’s actions are all the more objectionable because Napear was not acting as an official representative of the company when he wrote the tweet in question. Ruggles hastens to point out that when Napear sent the tweet, he was not at work and did not make use of any Bonneville facilities or resources. Instead, Napear was at home, writing on his private Twitter account.

Bonneville may have been too concerned about the possible consequences for its bottom line if it allowed Napear to stay on, Ruggles believes.

“They claim an exemption from the law because they contend that, as a radio personality, whatever Grant does publicly could bring disrepute to the radio station,” Ruggles said.

According to Ruggles, the implication that tweeting “ALL LIVES MATTER” is somehow a rebuke to the Black Lives Matter movement, and its goals do not find traction even with the relatives of George Floyd.

“They’ve all come out and said all lives matter. Even Phil Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, came out after the conviction [of former police officer Derek Chauvin] and said that all lives matter, and he wasn’t spewing racial hatred,” Ruggles said.

“People in Sacramento feel that Grant was treated quite wrongfully and that those who made the decision to fire him were not from Sacramento at all, and they want to impose their false beliefs on the city,” he added.

De-Platforming Mike Pence

Former Vice President Mike Pence narrowly avoided an effort by student activists to block him from speaking at the University of Virginia on April 12.

On March 17, the university’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, ran a staff editorial titled “Dangerous rhetoric is not entitled to a platform,” which argued that Pence’s views on Black Lives Matter, gay marriage, transgender rights, and other social issues did not constitute a legitimate “perspective” that deserved a hearing in the interest of fostering diversity of viewpoint. The authors of the editorial argued that allowing Pence to speak at the university would give a platform to “bigotry that threatens the well-being and safety of students.”

Epoch Times Photo
Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to a crowd of supporters at the University Club of Chicago in Chicago, Ill., on June 20, 2022. (Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

“The Cavalier Daily’s Editorial Board does not condone platforming an individual that not only denies the existence of our diverse community, but participates in the violent rhetoric that perpetuates harm against these individuals,” the editorial continued.

In response to the editorial, 17 professors from various departments and disciplines wrote an open letter criticizing the editorial’s equation of “speech with violence” and stating that they felt saddened at the assumption that freedom of speech is for the Cavalier Daily’s editors and not for those with different views.

In the end, Pence’s talk went ahead as planned, but not without an intensive campaign of harassment directed against the planners of the event.

Nickolaus Cabrera, the head of the University of Virginia chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, told The Epoch Times that posters he and his fellow organizers distributed quickly got vandalized, with devil’s horns drawn over Pence’s head.

A satirical publication on campus called The Dependable Press ran negative, sarcastic, and ad hominem pieces with headlines like “Is Democracy Dying? The Sad Truth: The Freedom to Oppress is Disappearing.”

These efforts to sabotage the talk did not elicit much response at official levels.

“The administration, despite being aware of the vandalism, took no investigative or disciplinary action,” Cabrera said.

Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”