J.K. Rowling, Gloria Steinem + 150 Others Sign Open Letter About Stifling Free Speech

Critics have noted the letter’s signatories already have major platforms and that "cancel culture" doesn’t exist.

LEFT: Gloria Steinem. RIGHT: J.K. Rowling | Getty Images
LEFT: Gloria Steinem. RIGHT: J.K. Rowling | Getty Images

The authors J. K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, along with more than 150 of writers, professors, scholars, and musicians, have signed an open letter claiming the “free exchange of information and ideas” are “becoming more constricted.” 

Titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Discourse,” it starts by saying, “Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” and references the recent wave of protests against systemic racism and police brutality. 

Harper’s Magazine published the letter on Tuesday, and it swiftly drew a range of reactions.

Other signers include activist Gloria Steinem, New York Times writer and editor Bari Weiss, Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, New York magazine writer Olivia Nuzzi, musician Wynton Marsalis, and historian Nell Irvin Painter. Weeks before the letter was published, Rowling was facing backlash for repeated transphobic remarks. 

In the letter, the signers, who represent multiple races, said that they support these calls for changes, but that there is also “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” 

“We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters,” the letter reads. “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”

The letter also referenced instances of “severe retribution” as a result of what the writers call “perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

It reads: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”

Atwood, who wrote the popular book-turned-television series “The Handmaid's Tale,” has separately faced backlash for being considered a “bad feminist” during the  #MeToo movement. 

Transgender activist and author Jennifer Finney Boylan expressed regret for signing the letter after learning of the other signatories: 

After the letter was published, several people responded saying that “cancel culture” doesn’t exist but that it rather holds people accountable. Others also questioned the massive, established platform Rowling and other signatories have. 

Others supported the idea that “cancel culture” is toxic and severely impacts people’s lives. 

One of the signers, magazine writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, defended it after publication, adding that supporters weren’t “the same old white males.”

The enterprise director at HuffPost tweeted that he declined to sign when he was asked. 

The letter comes after Rowling’s repeated controversial remarks on transgender men and women received a swift, and immense wave of backlash. Several “Harry Potter” actors, inducing Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, publicly opposed her views, saying they support the transgender community.

In a lengthy essay to try and justify her transphobic rhetoric, Rowling expressed the “harassment” she endured from Twitter users after several instances of liking tweets or commenting on stories that were harmful to trans people.