‘Any discussion of freedom of expression must also be a discussion of power’: Joint statement on online harassment

Scottish PEN has joined with English PEN, PEN International and several other centres to support a statement on the issue of online harassment.

October 5, 2020

Scottish PEN has joined with English PEN, PEN International and 19 other centres to support a statement on the issue of online harassment.

Across the world online harassment is on the rise*, exacerbated by our hyper-digital environment and accelerated by a global pandemic. As an organisation committed to working towards the ‘ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world’, PEN stands firmly against both offline and online harassment. As social media increasingly serves as a forum to exchange and debate ideas, 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.

Any discussion of freedom of expression must also be a discussion of power – one that takes into account the scale and ubiquity of digital platforms, current and historic inequalities and the dynamics at play among groups attempting to contribute to public discourse. Online harassment often disproportionately affects specific groups of people, including, but not limited to, people who experience racism, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and religious minorities*. It is no coincidence that the groups most severely and frequently harassed online are among those who have been subjected to the most significant levels of violence offline*.

We support the right to hold and express strong views, provided that such expression does not undermine the internationally recognised human rights of others, incite hatred, nor engender the threat or use of violence. It is right and proper that viewpoints are held up to rigorous scrutiny – free expression ensures that each of us is able to challenge ideas we question or disagree with. Strong and vocal disagreement is an essential way to challenge statements which undermine the human rights of others. We wholeheartedly support such robust debate of ideas, but we believe it is crucial to distinguish between meaningful criticism and gratuitous harassment (which degrades or intimidates a person or group). We are listening to and taking seriously those with experience of harassment and working with organisations to better support and protect individuals facing harassment.

Additionally we will continue to put pressure on platforms to better protect and support users facing harassment, and collaborate to study and draw attention to this issue so as to understand how best to identify and safely confront harassment when it occurs, and support those individuals or groups undergoing harassment. Freedom of speech is not freedom from the responsibilities of speech. As such, we call on all our members to recall one of the foundations of the PEN Charter and ‘use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect’*.


PEN International

PEN America

PEN Argentina

PEN Canada

Centro PEN de Escritores Cubanos en el Exilio

English PEN

PEN Estonia

PEN Guadalajara

PEN Haiti

Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann

PEN Nicaragua

PEN Norway

PEN Puerto Rico

PEN Paraguay

PEN Quebec

Scottish PEN

PEN Sierra Leone

PEN South Africa

PEN Sweden

PEN Uruguay

Wales PEN Cymru

PEN Zimbabwe


1. https://hbr.org/2020/06/youre-not-powerless-in-the-face-of-online-harassment

2. For example:



3. For example, in the UK, the majority of hate crimes were race hate crimes in 2018/19 (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/839172/hate-crime-1819-hosb2419.pdf); one in five LGBTQ+ people have experienced a hate crime or incident in the last twelve months, rising to two in five transgender people who have experienced the same (https://www.stonewall.org.uk/lgbt-britain-hate-crime-and-discrimination); one in three women will experience domestic abuse and/or sexual assault during her lifetime (https://homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2019/03/07/violence-against-women-and-girls-and-male-position-factsheets/).

4. https://www.englishpen.org/the-pen-charter/

Image credit: Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash