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by Staff reporter
10 October 2023
Academics at Edinburgh University accuse union of attempting to ‘shut down debate’ over sex and gender book

UCU Edinburgh has previously been criticised for preventing free speech after it supported demonstrations on two occasions that stopped the screening of the film Adult Human Female on the university campus | Alamy

Academics at Edinburgh University accuse union of attempting to ‘shut down debate’ over sex and gender book

Academics at the University of Edinburgh have accused their own union of attempting to stifle debate after it called for the launch of a book on sex and gender to be scrapped.

Sex and Gender: A Contemporary Reader features essays from figures such as the philosopher Kathleen Stock and is edited by Selina Todd and Alice Sullivan, a professor of sociology at University College London (UCL) who gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament last year on the Scottish Government’s gender reforms.

The University and College Union (UCU) Edinburgh branch committee has written to the university’s principal, Sir Peter Mathieson, saying it has “concerns about the launch of a transphobic book on campus”.

UCU Edinburgh has previously been criticised for preventing free speech after it supported demonstrations on two occasions that stopped the screening of the film Adult Human Female on the university campus.

The union argues that the book launch continues with the strategy “that trans people’s existence – like any ideology or theory – can be ‘debunked’” and that essays in the book reduce “trans people to an abstract anomaly or sinister cabal”.

In their letter to management, the UCU Edinburgh branch committee said: “The book being launched at the event continues with this strategy by using this false framing that trans people’s identity represents an ‘ideology’ and/or ‘lobby’ and that anyone supportive of trans people’s rights is a ‘gender-identity theorist’ or part of the ‘gender identity lobby’.”

But academics from the University of Edinburgh have criticised the union’s attempt to “shut down debate”.

Gale Macleod, a professor in interpersonal relationships in education, posted on social media: “A university is a place where you should expect to encounter views that are different to your own - that's kind of the point, and it is how we move forward, either improving our own arguments or accepting that other perspectives have some merit and revising our views accordingly.

“So disappointing then to see @ucuedinburgh try to shut down debate on campus by asking senior management to cancel @research_higher's forthcoming event.”

The UCU urged the university's management to show “its support for its trans staff and students” and to demonstrate a recognition that trans people are “not an ideology to be debunked” but a “vulnerable minority” under the Equality Act 2010 and the university’s policies.  

They added: “It is also time that you recognised – again in alignment with human rights organisations such as the United Nations – that ‘free speech’ must be balanced with responsibilities and restrictions relating to harm caused by certain types of speech, such as those that advocate and disseminate misinformation and smears against the validity of disempowered minorities. These are not ambitious requests on our part – they are a reminder of your fundamental obligations as reflected in the very policies you already have in place.”

Co-editors of the book, Sullivan and Todd, wrote to Mathieson: “This is an astonishing demand which suggests that opponents of pluralism, rigorous scholarship, and open discussion at the University of Edinburgh have been pandered to and emboldened.  

“The letter from Edinburgh UCU has also been sent to the entire branch mailing list, which we are told covers over 2,000 people. The letter makes libellous allegations directed at the authors of the book as a whole, and also singles out named individuals: Shereen Benjamin, Jane Clare Jones and Jo Phoenix.  

“These libellous allegations of transphobia and denying trans people’s existence constitute harassment and contribute to a hostile and discriminatory environment for staff and students at the University of Edinburgh who have the protected characteristic of gender critical belief, which can be summarised as the belief that sex is real and sex matters.”

They added: “We appreciate that the university does not control UCU communications. Nevertheless, the university has a duty of care to staff and students.

“It cannot be acceptable to allow staff to send mass defamatory emails which are intended to prevent academics from organising events and from expressing factual and evidence-based views. It cannot be acceptable that staff face no consequences for such unlawful and bullying behaviour.  

“We suggest that there is a positive opportunity here for you to send a message supporting the event and stating that university channels must not be used to make libellous allegations.”

In a statement, Mathieson confirmed that the launch will go ahead and added that the book is an academic publication by a "reputable publisher". He highlighted that the university has a "legal and moral responsibility to protect members of our community" and that no one that works, studies, or visits should be subject to discrimination or victimisation.

Mathieson said: "We must balance this responsibility with the role of a university to support freedom of speech by ensuring that debates that help shape our society can take place in a respectful and tolerant manner.

"We remain steadfast in our commitment to freedom of speech and we have procedures in place to support members of our community to host events on controversial topics with the safety of everyone on our campus as an absolute priority.

"While we are committed to freedom of speech, we will not tolerate discriminatory or disruptive behaviour. We firmly uphold the right of people to take part in peaceful and lawful protest, but we will not tolerate obstructive protest or protest that does not abide by our Dignity and Respect policy."

He added: "It is my sincere hope that by hosting events such as these, challenging topics can be explored with civility and intellectual rigour. It is only then that we can demonstrate that freedom of speech can be achieved while upholding our commitment to promote an inclusive culture that celebrates difference, challenges prejudice and ensures fairness."

A spokesperson from the University of Edinburgh said: “The University attaches great importance to freedom of expression and academic freedom and would not seek to influence any lawful events held on our campus.  

“Given the size of our community, it is inevitable that there will be differing views and opinions. We always encourage respectful debate and discussion, and we remain steadfast in our determination to facilitate a safe environment where challenging topics can be explored. We also firmly uphold the right of people to take part in peaceful and lawful protest.  

“As with all events hosted on our campus, we work with event organisers and put measures in place to mitigate safety concerns wherever possible.” 

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