We have been following the growing number of feminists denounced as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) around the world in free speech cases. These advocates have voiced opposition to transgender policies and laws that they believe “erase” or “marginalize” biological women. The latest such case is out of the United Kingdom where Staffordshire University criminologist Professor James Treadwell is under investigation for “transphobia” due to his call to keep prisons single sex for the protection of female inmates. In 2018, Karen White, a transgender inmate, sexually assaulted another inmate in a women’s prison. While Treadwell expressed his views on social media, he has been informed that he is being investigated for possible sanctions or termination.
On Twitter, Treadwell argued that transgender women should not be allowed in female prisons. He took that position in reference to research by the Prison Reform Trust charity, which found that more than half of women in prison reported having suffered domestic violence. The study found that 53 per cent reported to have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.
Treadwell tweeted that “Many [women] have been damaged by men time and again. I cannot see any case for now why we should do anything but #KeepPrisonsSingleSex.”
In 2018, he responded to the case involving Karen White by suggesting that transgender women not be housed in female prisons.
This is Treadwell’s field of expertise and he is voicing his concern for the safety of female prisoners. One can clearly disagree with his viewpoint. There are very few such cases and no study clearly showing that the inclusion of transgender inmates increases the level of violence. It is also not clear that the inclusion of such inmates has a detrimental impact on women with histories of abuse or assault. However, that is the point of this type of public debate and discourse. Knowledgable people can explore the data and the policies on a given question.
Rather than simply debate Professor Treadwell, activists have demanded that he be fired.
As always, my concern is not with the merits of such arguments, or even the manner in which they are expressed. Rather, professors have a right to express themselves even when they espouse offensive or disgraceful positions. As we have previously discussed, I have defended faculty members despite my strong disagreement with their views. One professor called for more Trump supporters to be killed. Another called for strangling police. Rhode Island Professor Erik Loomis, who writes for the site Lawyers, Guns, and Money, said he saw “nothing wrong” with the killing of a conservative protester — a view defended by other academics. While sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature writers like law professor Paul Campos who call for the firing of those with opposing views (including myself), they continue to feature a writer who has justified actually killing those with opposing views. I have opposed calls that extremist figures like Loomis should be terminated at their universities for speaking publicly on such issues. However, there remains a sharp contrast in how such controversial statements are treated by universities depending on their content or conclusions.
There are many feminists like JK Rowling who have raised concerns over the impact of transgender policies on women. The reaction was to ban or burn her books.
The attacks on such views is growing in the UK. In October, Sussex University feminist philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock resigned from her position after a relentless campaign to have her fired. Her offense? She said that she believes gender identity does not outweigh biological sex “when it comes to law and policy.” She did not try to silence others and was not accused o taking any actions as a teacher that were prejudiced against any transgender person. She merely stated what she believed.
In response, activists papered the campus with posters saying that they felt “unsafe” to have her on campus and labeled her “transphobic.” One group posted that
“We’ve f**king had enough . . . Transphobes like Stock are anti-feminist, anti-queer and anti-intellectual, they are harmful and dangerous to trans people. They’re spiteful bootlickers, with Stock alone spitting out years worth of tweets, articles and organising that makes her distaste for our existence abundantly clear.”
The “anti-intellectual” claim is almost comically ironic. . . if any of this was even remotely funny. There is no greater attack on intellectual discourse than a campaign to silence those with opposing views.
Rather than engage Stock in debate, activists attacked anyone willing to engage her on this issue. When there was an effort to have a civil debate over the controversy with Professor Stock and activist Peter Tatchell, there was a campaign of criticism of Tatchell for participating in any discussion. Stock was to be silenced not debated. Tatchell yielded to the mob and withdrew with an abject apology.
The fact is that this anti-free speech movement is succeeding. I have seen most top faculties shed all but a couple conservatives in what is now an academic echo chamber. This trend is discussed in my forthcoming law review article, Jonathan Turley, Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States, 45 Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (forthcoming). We have also discussed the rising generation of censors on our student governments and journals.
The decline of free speech in the United Kingdom has long been a concern for free speech advocates (here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech or “malicious communications” remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. Even having “toxic ideologies” is now a crime. As noted in a prior column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws.
The crackdown on free speech on campuses reflects how the anti-free speech movement is taking deep root within our educational system. It is an existential threat to higher education and could become irreversible with a rising generation of speech-phobic students. The problem is that few department heads or administrators want to risk their own careers in standing between a mob and a controversial speaker. The result is cringing obedience to a rising orthodoxy on our campuses.
You do not have to agree with Professor Treadwell to support him and his right to speak. Staffordshire University must now make a decision. It must stand with free speech and academic freedom or surrender any semblance of academic integrity to the will of the majority or the mob.