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Nelson McCausland

How illiberal militants are threatening freedom of speech in universities

Nelson McCausland

After an Oxford professor had to be escorted to lectures over her views on transgender issues Nelson McCausland asks what can be done to protect academic debate


Oxford University historian Prof Selina Todd

Oxford University historian Prof Selina Todd

Oxford University historian Prof Selina Todd

Freedom of speech and academic freedom are under threat today in many British universities and one of the battlegrounds is that of sexuality, especially transgenderism.

Merton College Oxford has organised an Equality Conversation event to explore “perspectives on transgender intersectionality” and it is due to take place next Monday, February 3. However, initially the college demanded that attendees agree not to “undermine the validity of trans and gender diverse identities”. In effect it was banning trans-sceptics, people who believe that gender is biological and that we are born either male or female.

That condition would have prevented any meaningful debate by prohibiting or silencing one viewpoint. It led to strong criticism from some academics and rightly so.

Professor Selina Todd, an Oxford University historian, said she was “stunned” by the rule and that it “set a dangerous precedent”. Others spoke up as well and eventually Merton College backed down. It removed the draconian prohibition and replaced it with a nuanced statement that supported free speech but also asked attendees to be respectful of other views.

However, some transgender activists were not content to let the matter rest there. Professor Todd has been branded transphobic’ and has become the target of threats on ‘email networks’. As a result she has been given security guards to accompany her to lectures.

It isn’t the first time that Professor Todd has been in the news over freedom of speech in universities.

Last summer she was one of a group of more than 30 senior academics, including several from Oxford University, who wrote to the Sunday Times arguing that the requirements of universities joining the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme were “in tension with academic freedom”.

Stonewall is the largest and most powerful LGBT pressure group in the United Kingdom and the academics were concerned that universities joining the Stonewall programme were creating an “inappropriately close relationship” with the LGBT activist group.

They said that Stonewall made “tendentious and anti-scientific claims” about transgenderism and that the Stonewall programme put “an unacceptable restriction upon free academic debate”.

Now Professor Todd is a socialist and a feminist. She is president of the Socialist Educational Association and her research focuses on the history of the working class, gender and feminism in the United Kingdom. You might imagine that with those credentials the liberal-Left would love her, but no!

She had committed the cardinal sin of daring to question the propaganda of the new militant transgenderists.

It is no wonder that the head of education at Policy Exchange has urged the Government to take steps to “tackle the tyrannical silencing of free speech” on university campuses.

Another and very different victim of this tyranny was Felix Ngole, who is a devout Christian and a social conservative.

In 2016 he was expelled from his social work course at Sheffield University after posting comments on his personal Facebook page in support of the biblical understanding of marriage and sexual ethics.

Someone must have reported him to the university and he was told that his posts “may have caused offence to some individuals”. It was also stated that he had “transgressed boundaries which are not deemed appropriate for someone entering the Social Work profession”.

The student’s career was at stake and he took the university to court. His barrister said: “If you philosophically believe in free speech, people should have the right to say what you don’t want to hear. Society must be rational in its restrictions of free speech. Otherwise, free speech would be at the mercy or the most militant, most aggressive, most hurt or even the most violent.”

The legal process ran on for several years but eventually in the summer of 2019 the Court of Appeal overturned the decision of a lower court and ruled against Sheffield University. The legal judgment was that merely expressing disagreement with same-sex marriage does not amount to discrimination. However, that victory came at considerable legal and personal cost, after a Christian student had endured four years of unfair treatment and unnecessary stress.

The thought-police of the liberal-Left are certainly busy these days and the bullying of those who dare to disagree with their diktats shows just how illiberal the liberal-Left really is.

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