Merton embroiled in free speech controversy

Merton College has been at the centre of a controversy this week regarding its upcoming Equality Conference, taking place on the 3rd February.

They were accused of stifling free speech in planning a discussion about transgender issues at their upcoming talk. The discussion will be centred on “perspectives on trans intersectionality” and initially explicitly excluded language “which denies the validity of trans identity”; attendees were asked to sign an agreement in order to attend the event.

More recently, however, Merton has removed the code of conduct from the event page, replacing it with a statement in support of free speech.

This has resulted in criticism from students and the LGBTQ+ community in Oxford.

In a statement released Thursday by Trans Action Oxford expressed that they are “deeply disappointed by the cowardice demonstrated by Merton College in removing a clause restricting hate speech… We do not believe that the validity of trans people’s genders can be a legitimate topic for debate, and we particularly stress that a discussion of the intersections of trans people’s oppressions with those of other groups is a place in which marginalised groups’ voices should be heard…”

“Merton College had a tremendous opportunity to make a powerful statement about the mainstreaming of anti-trans bigotry – an opportunity they have failed to take. That they did so demonstrates the utter failure of the University and its Colleges to take the concerns of the trans community in Oxford seriously. This is a reckless and irresponsible decision”

The Warden of Merton College, in an email sent to students to explain the events, said: “a previous trans-related event at the University was disrupted last term, and it was suggested to us to adopt a code of conduct over concerns of harassment.

“The language used was not meant in any way to undermine free speech, but to ensure that people came and spoke openly without disruption or harassment… We are committed to open promotion of equality and diversity in an environment of respect.”

Oxford history Professor Selina Todd and Sociology Professor Michael Biggs were two of the figures who claimed the initial disclaimer for the event was banning free speech.

Todd is closely associated with trans-exclusionary radical feminist group Woman’s Place UK. She stated: “universities and colleges are supposed to be upholding free speech”, and that regulating this sets a “dangerous precedent”.

Sociology Professor Michael Biggs stated the ban “seems intended to instil anxiety in the audience, who cannot know what viewpoints are forbidden.”

The Oxford Student has previously documented anti-trans comments by Professor Todd, including her statement on her website that “[supporting trans rights] would harm the rights of women… You can’t change sex – biologically, that is impossible.”

The Oxford Student has reported that Professor Biggs had posted “transphobic” statements online under the Twitter handle @MrHenryWimbush. Tweets from the account included: “transphobia is a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” More recently, Professor Biggs published an article for the blog Quillette, which claims that “young lesbians are vulnerable to aggressive pursuits by transwomen”.

Both expressed to The Oxford Student that they were pleased that Merton had changed the policy, with Professor Biggs telling The Oxford Student that “I have never been to a university event that required the audience to accept the validity of one particular perspective. Regardless of my own views, I would find it equally objectionable to be told that I had to accept the validity of Islam, or of feminism or of Israel. Fortunately, Merton College quickly realized its mistake and its most recent statement—protecting academic freedom while preventing unlawful discrimination—is exemplary.”

These aims are reflected in an earlier email from the Warden which stated: “the University and Merton prioritise the protection both of academic freedom and of their members from unlawful discrimination. We seek to foster a culture of robust expression of opinion and debate that does not tolerate any form of harassment or victimisation. We and the University are committed to fostering an inclusive, diverse environment and to ensuring that all our staff and students, including LGBTQ+ members of the community, are able to thrive and realise their potential. We aim to create an inclusive culture and a workplace and learning environment that prizes academic freedom while being free from discrimination, harassment or victimisation.”

The Equality Conference will host speakers including Dr Clara Barker, chair of the LGBT+ advisory group to Oxford University and winner of the University’s diversity award, Sabah Choudrey, activist on “most things trans, brown and hairy”, and Freddy McConnell, the co-creator of the film Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth.

Alumni of Merton College have since written an open letter expressing their “disapproval” over the removal of the code of conduct. The letter states the alumni are “alarmed” by the college’s response, and stresses: “Freedom of speech does not include hate speech. It does not include the right to undermine the validity of trans and gender diverse identities.

“With this event, Merton had a real opportunity to show support to one of the most marginalised groups within society and the student population. We are disappointed to see this opportunity has been passed up, and ashamed that our former place of learning has shown such cowardice backing down in the face of criticism.”

Image Credit: Matt Brown