The University of Essex has today published Akua Reindorf’s Review of two events involving external speakers, concerning the controversy surrounding events at which Professor Jo Phoenix (Open University) and Professor Rosa Freedman (University of Reading) had been invited to speak.
The report concludes that the University breached the Professors’ rights to freedom of expression because of preconceptions about their views on trans rights and gender identity. The University was in breach of its statutory duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for visiting speakers (s.43 of the Education Act (No. 2) 1986 s.43(1)), its own Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom policy, its regulatory obligations, its duties under charity law and potentially the Public Sector Equality Duty.
In Professor Phoenix’s case, a seminar which she was due to give in December 2019 was cancelled at the last minute because of threats of disruption. A flyer was circulated in the University bearing an image of a cartoon character pointing a gun and the words “SHUT THE F*** UP, TERF”. The report concluded that proper use of the University’s external speaker notification procedure would have averted the last minute panic which resulted in the cancellation. Thereafter, a decision was taken to not invite Professor Phoenix to give another seminar because of concerns that she would engage in “hate speech” against trans people. The report concluded that this amounted to blacklisting and was unlawful, and that there was no reasonable basis for thinking that Professor Phoenix might use unlawful speech of any kind.
Professor Freedman was invited to take part in a roundtable discussion in January 2020 on the subject of The State of Antisemitism Today, as part of the University’s Holocaust Memorial Week event. After concerns were raised about her views on sex and gender the invitation was effectively rescinded. A member of the University posted a tweet comparing her views to Holocaust denial. The report concluded that the withdrawal of the invitation to Professor Freedman was particularly egregious because she had been invited to speak on a matter which was entirely unconnected to sex and gender and which was of particular personal significance to her. Even if the debate had related to issues of gender identity, there was no evidence that Professor Freedman might engage in unlawful speech. The invitation was reinstated after Professor Freedman publicised her dissatisfaction with the withdrawal of the invitation, and she ultimately took part in the event. The breach of Professor Freedman’s freedom of expression was rectified, but only because she took steps to complain about it publicly.
The report recommends that the University publish open apologies to both Professors and takes a number of other steps to ensure that it complies with its legal and regulatory duties in relation to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Further the report recommends that the University’s equality and diversity policies and its policy on supporting trans and nonbinary staff should be reviewed and amended to accurately state the law. It is recommended that a Working Group be set up to devise and implement a strategy for repairing relationships between trans and nonbinary University members and those with gender critical views, in particular women.
The University’s apologies to the Professors and the actions which it intends to take in response to the report’s recommendations have been published on its website. The University intends to implement all of the recommendations save for the recommendation that it give consideration to the relative benefits and disbenefits of its relationship with Stonewall in light of the drawbacks and potential illegalities identified in the report as having arisen from that relationship.