A trans row has erupted at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities over an attempt by students to block a gender-critical speaker.
More than 40 academics have signed an open letter to the Oxford University Students Union warning them that freedom of speech is at risk after moves to deplatform Professor Kathleen Stock.
The leading feminist, who was invited to speak by members of the Oxford Union, has been accused by some students of being transphobic over her view that it is fiction to claim “trans women are women.”
Scholars, including evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, have now joined forces to publicly oppose the student backlash.
In one of the most significant interventions by academics in recent free speech controversies, the 44 Oxford dons with “a range of different political beliefs, Left and Right” have signed the letter stating universities should be “places where contentious views can be openly discussed.”
The letter, published in The Telegraph on Wednesday, said the academics condemn the student union’s decision to sever ties with the Oxford Union after it refused to withdraw an invitation asking Stock to speak.
“Professor Stock believes that biological sex in humans is real and socially salient, a view which until recently would have been so commonplace as to hardly merit asserting,” the letter stated.
“Whether or not one agrees with Professor Stock’s views, there is no plausible and attractive ideal of academic freedom, or of free speech more generally, which would condemn their expression as outside the bounds of permissible discourse.”
Stock, who quit her job as a lecturer at the University of Sussex in 2021 after being targeted by activists over her views on gender identity, said this week that she still planned to take part in the event.
Speaking to Times Radio on Tuesday, she said: “I’m due to speak at the Oxford Union and some people really don’t want me to … despite the fact they’ve had Martin McGuinness, OJ Simpson after his trial, David Irving, and various other people.”
Asked why she is seen as “dangerous,” the philosopher replied, “Well, because I’m afraid that my presence punctures a certain kind of fantasy version of events—a fantasy version of the world as it were—because I don’t believe some things that young people are encouraged to believe absolutely.”
The academic has since thanked fellow scholars for their support in signing the open letter.
“Grateful to the Oxford faculty who signed an open letter standing up for the Union’s right to invite me, and have others hear me speak,” she wrote on Twitter.
She also told The Telegraph that it was “heartening” to see the academics’ commitment to “standing up in public against authoritarian tendencies.”
Stock is due to give her talk at Oxford Union on May 30, with a protest planned by students opposing her invite.
The Oxford Union, which describes itself as the “last bastion of free speech,” said students will be able to “challenge” Stock at the event.
In a statement posted on Facebook earlier this month, the Oxford Union said:
“This format is designed to uphold the Union’s founding principle of freedom of expression for both our members and our guest speakers.
“Attendees can use this opportunity to respectfully engage with and challenge Professor Stock’s views.”
The society added: “Given the sensitive nature of the themes discussed at this event, there will also be additional welfare resources available on the evening.
“Moreover, it will be possible for members to ask questions anonymously, through a link that will be circulated prior to the day of the event.”
Richard Dawkins, founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, in Sydney, Australia, on Dec. 4, 2014. (Don Arnold/Getty Images)
‘Shouldn’t Be Punished’
The academics’ intervention has been backed by education minister Claire Coutinho.
She told The Telegraph: “Student debaters shouldn’t be punished for encouraging the free exchange of ideas.
“Our newly passed Freedom of Speech Act will make sure that universities promote free speech and that those who have their free speech rights unlawfully restricted on campus can seek redress.”
In a statement to The Telegraph, the Oxford University Students Union said “the motion was unrelated to Stock’s intended talk” and said Stock was not discussed at the meeting.
It said it was “committed to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and will defend the right of people to have controversial and unpopular ideas debated as an integral part of university life and the university experience.”
In a statement issued last month, the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society called for Stock’s invitation to speak to be rescinded as it claimed she was “transphobic and trans-exclusionary.”
It also accused Oxford Union of “disregarding” the welfare of the society’s members under the guise of free speech.
Responding on Twitter at the time, Stock said the society’s statement contained “several falsehoods,” was “probably defamatory” and made it look “utterly ridiculous.”
A coalition of Oxford organisations and activists will hold a Trans+ Pride event in the city centre on May 30, which will include a rally and march which will culminate outside the Oxford Union where Stock is due to speak.