Academic Freedom to Hate

28 November 2019

Content warning: transphobia

On a chilly August night, two sides of a debate that has been simmering for decades clash on the sidewalk outside an event hosted by opponents of legislation that would allow transgender people to change the sex marker on their birth certificates without medical intervention.

No fists were thrown, but the underlying threat of violence perceived by both sides left them shaken. The combatants faded into the night, and by the next morning it was business as usual at the University of Melbourne, where the event was hosted.

Business as usual for trans academics like Michelle McNamara, an Enterprise Fellow for the School of Biosciences, means working at an institution that employs people who deny her identity.

The University defends the employment of these academics and their right to express their views. “The University must be a place for the exchange and challenge of knowledge and ideas, undertaken with a shared respect for competing points of view,” Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell says.

But, should academic freedom of speech override the right of students and staff to feel safe on campus?

On one side sits the University of Melbourne and select members of its faculty. On the other, a litany of trans, gender-nonconforming (GNC) and ally students and staff.

For Maskell, “A commitment to the rights of LGBTQI people and a commitment to freedom of expression are not automatically in conflict, unless that expression takes the form of bullying, violence, or attempts to suppress the rights of others to speak.”

This was the University’s defence for allowing the Future of Sex-Based Rights, the event held on 8 August in the Sidney Myer Asia Centre’s Carrillo Gantner Theatre, to proceed.

“The response from the faculty felt like a personal ‘fuck you’,” says Priya, a trans person of colour. They, along with Sophie, a cis white queer woman, spearheaded a petition circulated via Equality Australia calling for the University to “Provide a Safe Environment for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals”.

In it, Sophie and Priya write, “the primary concern of universities who are actively working to eliminate discrimination against their LGBTQIA+ staff and students should be the safety and well-being of this group.”

UMSU have come out in support of trans and GNC students and rejected the University’s defence of academic freedom of speech. “It unfortunately sends a message that the University will take special efforts to protect people who want to denigrate trans communities,” says Queer Officer Andie Moore.

“Transphobic academics legitimise fear around trans people’s existence, and justify violence against them. If the University wants to commit to diversity and inclusion, it shouldn’t employ transphobic academics and allow them to spread hatred in its own name.”

Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, a political philosopher who has only recently begun weighing in on the gender debate, was one of the speakers at the event. She recently defended her “right” to misgender people in an opinion piece published by Fairfax, arguing that being forced to use someone’s preferred pronouns amounts to “compelled speech” and that cis women should be able to dictate who is “entitled” to use feminine pronouns.

Lawford-Smith pushes back against the notion that her views can cause harm. She says, “having your identity claims denied is not ‘oppression’ and being offended is not the same as being ‘hurt’.”

Despite these claims, she wishes to control how others identify her, not wanting to be referred to as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). She argues that it amounts to a slur as it is “often used in a really misogynistic way”, because “it’s become associated with putting down [cis] women, dismissing [cis] women, an excuse to not listen to [cis] women’s concerns.”

Priya says of Lawford-Smith, “there’s a complete disconnect of understanding the power of discourse to hurt people,” where “[us] calling [her] a TERF is going to hurt [her], but [her] saying that transfemmes are actually men is not going to hurt them”.

They write in the petition, “Discussions about the validity of transgender and gender non-conforming people’s identities neither adds to the richness of academic inquiry, nor does it foster a safe and inclusive learning environment.”

These views on the power of words are echoed by McNamara, who says uncritically promoting views like Lawford-Smith’s is dangerous, as “They’re a justification for not treating [trans people] well and abusing [trans people].”

“I think the University should have people with a broad set of views and be a place for broad discussion,” she says, however, “People are entitled to their own opinions; they are not entitled to their own facts.”

McNamara argues that while Lawford-Smith can say what she wants, the onus is on the University to ensure that these views are not taught as facts, or preferably not taught at all. She urges the University to re-examine its commitment to academic freedom and appropriate workplace behaviour.

Concerns have also been expressed over the legitimacy the University lends to these views, with Moore saying, “By platforming people with these sorts of destructive views, the University is giving them credibility.”

“Because [Lawford-Smith] has the title of doctor, it legitimises what she’s saying,” Sophie says. “My personal opinion is that she is abusing her position as a tenured academic at this University to propagate her opinions about something that isn’t even in her area of research.”

The University of Melbourne has a history of hiring people with similar views to Lawford-Smith. In the past, the University employed retired professor of political science Sheila Jeffreys, notorious for her transphobic views. The University recently promoted Jeffreys as an expert on transgenderism, which McNamara likens to promoting anti-vaxxers as vaccination experts.

As students, Priya and Sophie are sceptical towards how the newly implemented Freedom of Speech policy will affect the way views are expressed in an academic environment. “The wording around it is so loose and so subject to interpretation, that it builds in loopholes for anybody who wants to subvert it,” says Priya. “Freedom of speech is great if you’re a tenured academic who wants to say something bigoted.”

McNamara says, “The University needs to be aware that people use their name to promote values and views that are in conflict with University values, the University needs to hold these people to account.”

Academic freedom of expression has been endorsed by the University as a way of ensuring that ideas can be openly debated on campus. It recognises that “scholarly debate should be robust and uninhibited”, even when ideas may cause offence.

But, for trans and GNC people like McNamara and Priya, these debates are difficult if their gender identity is not being respected.

“Let’s not call each other names, let’s just have the conversation,” says Lawford-Smith, despite that she has repeatedly and purposefully called transgender women “males”, stopping conversation before it can start.

Arguments that cis women should have the ultimate say in all issues involving their gender have been used to try to bar trans women from women’s spaces and strip them of their identity. When these arguments are questioned, gender-critical feminists like Lawford-Smith say that any attacks on their ideologies are attacks on all cis women.

The University of Melbourne continues to defend academics who use this rhetoric, allowing freedom of academic speech taking precedence over the fostering of productive debate.

“It really makes me not want to study here,” Priya says, “The institution’s fucked.”


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