AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
The United States is not the only country where freedom of speech is under threat at institutions of higher education. The United Kingdom, home to some of the world’s oldest institutions, including Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Andrews, has been witness to systemic efforts to persecute academics and students who have dissented from prevailing “woke” viewpoints. Unlike the Biden administration, but similar to a number of U.S. states including Florida, the British government has responded with legislation to throw the power of the state behind freedom of expression on campus.
Rishi Sunak had campaigned for Prime Minister last summer promising to “crack down on woke nonsense.” This spring, he began to make good on that pledge. In May, the British Parliament passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, creating a legal obligation for Britain’s universities to protect the freedom of speech of students and staff, while also creating a compliance system in which they can appeal to the government if they believe their rights have been violated.
The entire process is to be overseen by a free speech Czar. On June 1, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appointed Arif Ahmad, an academic at Cambridge, as the first occupant of the role.
Ahmad is a strong critic of cancel culture, having declared that freedom of expression and debate are “vital to the core purpose of universities and colleges” and “fundamental to our civilization.” He pledged to fight practices including “no-platforming” speakers, mandatory bias training for staff, and disciplining students and academics for the views expressed on their social media.
Ahmad’s appointment occurred during a trial by fire in the form of a battle over whether a well-known academic critical of the transgender movement would be allowed to speak at the Oxford Union.
The invitation had provoked infighting between faculty, pitted the administration against the student government, the student government against the independent Oxford Union debate society, and drawn in leading politicians. That the speech eventually went ahead, despite violence in the streets, is a testament to the weakness of cancel culture when it is aggressively resisted and to the bravery of those involved.
The event in question was an invitation to Dr. Kathleen Stock, until 2021 of the University of Sussex, to address the Union. A decade ago, inviting Dr. Stock would have been praised by many of the groups protesting, as she is an outspoken feminist and a lesbian married to another woman.
But in 2023, identifying as “lesbian” is seen as conservative, and implying that being lesbian requires being physically female is regarded as practically fascist. While maintaining that she, “gladly and vocally assert[s] the rights of trans people to live their lives free from fear, violence, harassment or any discrimination,” Stock has warned that trans woman are “still males with male genitalia, many are sexually attracted to females, and they should not be in places where females undress or sleep in a completely unrestricted way.” For Stock, allowing individuals to merely declare themselves to be of whatever gender they feel like will “threaten a secure understanding of the concept of ‘lesbian.’”
This would seem to be a logical position, and one that until recently would have been considered liberal. Dr. Stock does not advocate for making gender transition illegal, or allowing discrimination against those who pursue it in society.
Rather, she believes that there should be a vigorous process of regulation, both to ensure those undertaking gender transition are fully informed about the risks, and that minors do not make irreversible choices they may later come to regret.
For these heresies, for calling out “the institutionalization of the idea that gender identity is all that matters – that how you identify automatically confers all the entitlements of that sex,” and worse, for her effectiveness in persuading people, Stock was driven from her job, her career, and very nearly physically driven from Oxford when she went to speak.
According to the Times of London, at Sussex, Stock “taught trans students, respecting their pronouns, and has written repeatedly in support of their human rights.” Nonetheless, her willingness to speak out on the issue led to a campaign of harassment by radical activist groups, with students posting signs with the personal details of her family, disrupting her lectures, and filing a complaint alleging she was “espousing a bastardised version of radical feminism that excludes and endangers trans people.”
The police urged Stock to install CCTV cameras around her home for her own protection. While the university administration and government ministers backed Dr. Stock and called for an investigation into the campaign, her own union, the University and College Union, denounced her, and, while insisting “we do not endorse the call for any worker to be sacked,” expressed solidarity with the protests. Stock suggested that this action by her own union effectively ended her career, and she resigned shortly thereafter.
The campaign to cancel Dr. Stock occurred in much less favorable circumstances for those pushing cancel culture than exist in the United States. Dr. Stock had the backing of both the government and many leading academics, including the university administration. The government also had a much greater role in overseeing the higher education system than in the largely private American system.
Nonetheless, much as in the U.S., the power of teachers unions negates that of locally elected school boards and administrators. In the U.K., the far left’s control of the unions and the control a minority of radical students held over the student government made Dr. Stock’s position untenable despite tenure.
This is what made her invitation to Oxford so unusual. She was invited on behalf of the Oxford Union, a student debating society which is technically independent of the school with paid lifetime membership for Oxford students.
Historically, it has hosted debates among major public figures, including Jordan Peterson, Peter Thiel, Mike Pompeo, and many former U.S. Presidents. The organization’s past presidents included Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan. Its independent status, and the need to pay dues in order to vote, gifted it some independence from the left-wing organization which has allowed radicals to take over student bodies, and the invitation to Dr. Stock was in line with its history of being at the forefront of debate on serious issues.
If its independence left it free to invite Dr. Stock, the left attempted to use its control of other institutions at the school to target both the Union and its members in order to pressure them to rescind the invitation. The Oxford Student Government, not to be confused with the Union Society, which is in theory elected by the entire student body, severed ties with the Union Society and sought to ban it from “freshers fair,” where new students can sign up for societies. More than a dozen of Oxford’s Colleges passed resolutions denouncing the invitation for causing “harm” and demanding all of their officers boycott, implicitly threatening any who did not. The Oxford LGBTQ+ society accused the Oxford Union of “disregarding the welfare” of trans students under the “guise of free speech.”
This is typical of what one would expect from a woke university these days. However, while condemnation and cancellation were to be expected, what was more surprising was the degree of pushback.
The student government decision to ban the Union was later overturned by the administration for violating the university’s free speech policy with some choice words for opponents. “Our Freedom of Speech policy makes clear that the University seeks to prepare students to encounter and confront difficult views, including views that they find unsettling, extreme or even offensive,” wrote Professor Martin Williams, one of Oxford’s Pro-Chancellors, in an open letter, going on to declare that “we do not allow the no-platforming of any lawful speech.”
More than 44 Oxford Dons, or senior professors, including noted atheist Richard Dawkins, signed an open letter declaring, “Professor Stock believes that biological sex in humans is real and socially salient, a view which until recently would have been so commonplace as to hardly merit asserting.” When nearly 100 academics wrote a response attacking Martin Williams for “undermining democracy within the University of Oxford and insulting the students,” the prime minister himself chimed in, telling the Telegraph newspaper, “We mustn’t allow a small but vocal few to shut down discussion. Kathleen Stock’s invitation to the Oxford Union should stand.”
Ultimately it did. Odds are that the prime minister’s words mattered less in the end than the legislation he had pushed through, which gave cover to the administration to stare down advocates of canceling the event.
Yet credit is owed to those who stood their ground, including Dr. Stock, who braved personal threats, and the President of the Oxford Union, Matthew Dick, who not only defended free speech in his role, but was willing to speak up publicly as well.
In the end, the event attracted a far wider audience than it might otherwise have, with the contrast between the respectable way Dr. Stock answered aggressive questioning in the chamber and the circus-like atmosphere outside being especially evident.
Critically, it was the defenders of free speech who were treated like heroes in the media. As conservatives have come to realize all too well, much of the advance of “woke” values is not organic, but rather the product of a perception that conforming will aid students in securing corporate jobs.
By demonstrating that there are rewards, or at least not purely punishment, for defending free speech, the pushback in the U.K. and in many U.S. states is helping to change that incentive structure.
Change will come by changing incentives within power structures. New legislation within the U.K. is a start. If it empowers wide cultural improvement, we can hope what happened at Oxford is a preview of the future.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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