The Oxford Union bills itself as “the most prestigious debating society in the world” based on the values of free speech. It is a well-earned reputation for one of the world’s oldest forums for debating the great issues of the day. However, Oxford students are outraged that the Union will allow a debate over transgender ideology. In response, as reported by the The Times UK, the Union has promised to provide a “non-student support team that will remain in a separate welfare space to offer counseling and advice.” This is to deal with the trauma of free speech in simply allowing Dr. Kathleen Stock to speak about her views that biological sex is real and “gender identity” should not alter certain biological truths.
Stock is a feminist who has joined those (like the author J.K. Rowling) in raising concerns over transgender ideology. Her book, “Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism,” explores the subject and calls for a reaffirming of fixed biological realities.
At the same time, Stock has stressed her support for trans rights generally, writing that trans people “deserve to be safe, to be visible throughout society without shame or stigma, and to have exactly the same life opportunities as non-trans people do.”
Nevertheless, Oxford’s LGBTQ+ society called for censorship of the debate society and objected to her being allowed to be heard on campus as a “transphobic and trans-exclusionary speaker.” They alleged that the union was ignoring the welfare of the society’s members under the guise of free speech.
It really is not a “guise” but the very essence of free speech.
Stock was previously a faculty member at University of Sussex, but was effectively forced out due to protests. She is now a Founding Faculty Fellow of the University of Austin, a school founded on free speech principles.
The Oxford Union deserves considerable credit for maintaining its commitment to free speech in the face of yet another cancel campaign. What is most notable about the campaign is the objection to “letting Stock bring her campaign of hate and misinformation to Oxford [and] allowing her to stoke fear against trans people without challenge or opposition.”
This is a debating society. Stock will be challenged and questioned. That is the point. What the LGBTQ+ society is advocating is the cancellation of such speakers to bar “challenge or opposition” to its own views.
The creation of “welfare spaces” is a bit difficult to square with the free speech foundation of the Union. It is also unlikely that emotional support teams are available when writers and professors are denounced as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs).
There has long been an anti-free speech movement based on the notion of free speech as harmful. This dangerous trend in academia is discussed in my law review article, Jonathan Turley, “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States”, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
The Union reinforces this view by promising to have emotional support ready and safe spaces set aside for those traumatized by hearing opposing views.
I have previously written of my pride as an alumnus of The University of Chicago in how the school has led the fight for free speech in higher education. It is also ranked as the number one free speech school in the country. (I will be speaking at UChicago next week on Friday and Saturday, including one event on free speech).
UChicago shocked many in 2016 when it sent a letter to incoming students that promised an unfettered and uncensored education without the protection from disturbing or offensive ideas. While most schools are actively curtailing free speech, its letter warned the students that they will not be protected against ideas or given “safe spaces.”
Again, Oxford Union has remained faithful to its noble commitment to free speech inviting Stock. I can also understand the desire to be responsive and understanding to the deep-felt sense of injury by some. However, universities do not have to protect people from the trauma of hearing opposing views. They need to empower everyone to speak freely and to associate with others who share their values.
I may be naive, but I also hope that a few critics might also want to hear Stock and engage in a productive and civil debate at the Oxford Union.