Open letter: Freedom of speech at the University of Bristol

Professor Hugh Brady
Vice Chancellor and President
Vice Chancellor’s Office
Senate House
Tyndall Avenue

Dear Professor Brady,

We are a group of academics who are very concerned about the misrepresentations contained in the recent open letter to you about the disciplinary proceedings which have been initiated by the University of Bristol against one of your students, Nic Shall. The letter misrepresents both the nature of these proceedings, and the nature of the group, A Woman’s Place UK.

We do not think it appropriate for us to comment on the potential outcome of disciplinary proceedings, but we think it is important to correct the impression given in the previous open letter that this student is facing disciplinary proceedings merely for writing a petition. In fact, one of the allegations to which these proceedings relate is that the student concerned intimidated another student because she chaired a meeting held by A Woman’s Place UK.

The letter describes A Woman’s Place UK as “discriminatory,” and as an “anti-trans campaign group.” It states that it is not “false information” to say that A Woman’s Place UK “provides a platform for hate speech.” It also states that the group was set up to campaign against trans rights “as enshrined in legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010.” All these statements completely misrepresent the nature of A Woman’s Place UK, and what it seeks to do.

A Woman’s Place UK does not provide a platform for hate speech against any group. Its meetings are open to all, and speakers at its events have included trans people. It has never campaigned against the current Gender Recognition Act or the Equality Act. In fact, it is concerned to ensure that the existing rights enshrined in these Acts are protected. The group was set up to discuss the potential impact of proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act on existing protections, particularly the effect on women’s sex-based protections under the Equality Act 2010.

Feminists’ attempts to discuss the proposed legislative changes have been met with attempts to shut meetings down by some trans activists, who characterize debate about how legislative change might be established in ways which could uphold both the sex-based rights of women and the rights of trans people as illegitimate, and inherently “transphobic.” We support the right of peaceful protest, but do not support any group which uses physical intimidation to try to silence those with whom it disagrees.

In September 2017, a woman was physically assaulted while attempting to attend a meeting about proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. The person responsible was convicted of assault by beating in April this year.

This physical assault on one woman was also a political assault on all women’s rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. It was this assault which led to the formation of A Woman’s Place UK. The first of its five demands is “respectful and evidence based discussion” on the impact of any legal changes. This is hardly a call to engage in hate speech.

Recordings of most of the speeches given at A Woman’s Place UK meetings are freely available online. However, none of these speeches is included amongst the online sources presented in the letter as purportedly supporting the allegation that the group is “anti-trans.” The best evidence of a group’s political stance is surely what is said at their meetings, and not what others say about them. No such evidence is presented in the letter.

We applaud Bristol University’s stance in upholding the principles of freedom of speech and assembly in relation to the right of A Woman’s Place UK to hold meetings without participants being intimidated.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Katie Alcock, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Lancaster University

Dr Sophie Allen, Lecturer in Philosophy, Keele University

Dr Michael Biggs, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford

Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London

John Collins, Professor of Philosophy, University of East Anglia

Debbie Epstein, Professor of Cultural Studies in Education, Roehampton University

John Gardner, Professor of Law and Philosophy, University of Oxford

Dr Mary Leng, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of York

Dr Susan Matthews, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Department of English and Creative Writing, University of Roehampton

Professor Michele Moore, Nuffield Department of Surgical Services, University of Oxford

Maureen O’Hara, Senior Lecturer in Law, Coventry University

Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI, De Montfort University

Dr Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Sheffield

Dr Kathleen Stock, Reader in Philosophy, University of Sussex

Dr Jo Waugh, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, York St John University

Dr Catherine Andrews, División de Historia, CIDE, Mexico

Dr Chris Bateman, Senior Lecturer, School of Creative Technology, University of Bolton

Iain Brassington, Senior Lecturer, CSEP/ iSEI/ School of Law, University of Manchester

Dr Diane Brewster (retired), Informatics, formerly University of Sussex and Open University.

Professor Robert Jensen, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin

Michael Herbert, MA, freelance historian and historical blogger on Red Flag Walks

Dr Simon Hewitt, Early Career Research Fellow in Philosophy, University of Leeds

Jennifer Izaakson, Phd Candidate, CRMEP Kingston University

Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne

Sarah Masson, PhD Candidate, Department. of Sociology University of Oxford

Riz Mokal, Visiting Professor in Law at the University of Florence

Dr Eva Poen, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Exeter.

Dr Lesley Semmens, Senior Lecturer (retired), School of Computing, Leeds Beckett University

Cherry Smiley, PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

David Spurrett, Dean, School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics (UKZN)

Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago Law School

Chetan Bhatt, Professor of Sociology, LSE Human Rights, London School of Economics & Political Science

Sian Hindle, Senior Lecturer, School of Jewellery, Faculty of Arts, Design and Media, Birmingham City University

Imogen Galilee, PhD candidate (Law), University of Cambridge, Wolfson College, Cambridge

Julian Dodd, Professor of Philosophy, University of Manchester

Dr Sarah Stock, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Maternal and Fetal Health
MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, University of Edinburgh

Dr Julia Jordan, Lecturer, Department of English, University College London

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