What hope for free speech at our cradles of learning?

Thoughtcrime on campus: As a professor is vilified by students and even her own union for saying sex is a biological fact… top historian DOMINIC SANDBROOK asks: What hope for free speech at our cradles of learning?

At first glance, Professor Kathleen Stock seems an unlikely freedom fighter.

Crop-haired and soft-spoken, she appears far too measured for a place on the barricades, risking her career to defend free speech.

The product of a Scottish comprehensive school, Stock has taught philosophy at the University of Sussex since 2003. 

Her academic work, which covers subjects such as the philosophy of fiction and music, is very highly regarded, but it’s hardly the stuff of incendiary public debate.

Yet when she arrived for work a week ago, she found the campus plastered with posters calling her ‘one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes, espousing a bastardised version of radical feminism’.

Professor Kathleen Stock’s academic work, which covers subjects such as the philosophy of fiction and music, is very highly regarded, but it’s hardly the stuff of incendiary public debate

Meanwhile, a concerted social media campaign, encouraged by some of her colleagues, demanded Sussex sack her immediately.

‘Fire Kathleen Stock,’ read an online ultimatum from a group of transgender activists. ‘Until then, you’ll see us around.’


So what was her crime? Put simply, it was to have questioned the new transgender orthodoxy that has conquered so much of British academia.

To the activists’ fury, Professor Stock has dared to suggest that a person’s sex is an immutable biological fact. And to compound her offence, she has even indicated it may not be a good idea to allow people with male genitals into women’s changing rooms.

In an age when most university authorities are notable for their cowardice, it was refreshing to see Sussex’s vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Tickell, stick up for Professor Stock and defend her right to academic freedom.

But if she expected any support from her trade union, the hard-Left University And College Union (UCU), she was to be cruelly disappointed.

In a statement dripping with malevolent hypocrisy, the Sussex UCU declined to mention Stock by name. 

Nor did it defend her right to think and write as she chooses. Instead, it demanded an urgent investigation into ‘institutional transphobia’, and insisted that the university must do more to root out the heretics — clearly meaning her.

As Stock herself put it, her own union has made her position untenable. To make matters worse, Sussex Police have advised her to hire bodyguards and install CCTV at her home, such is the risk of attack by student activists.

So what on earth is going on? What has happened to Britain’s universities?

It’s a complicated story with two principal aspects — both, alas, equally unsavoury.

First, there’s the poisonous climate surrounding the issue of transgender identity. As any reasonable observer would agree, this is a fraught and confusing issue, on which people can take different positions.

It’s worth noting that some transgender people have spoken in Professor Stock’s defence, signing a public letter condemning the ‘harassment and abuse’ carried out by a handful of campus bullies.

But at our universities, unfortunately, it’s the radical activists who set the tone, denouncing doubters in the most violent terms.

The product of a Scottish comprehensive school, Stock has taught philosophy at the University of Sussex since 2003


Only yesterday, the Cambridge Students’ Union published a pro-trans guide claiming that women aren’t defined by ‘biological sex’.

A section entitled ‘How to Spot Terf [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] Ideology’ even links sceptics with the ‘far Right’.

To most of us, this sounds like gibberish. But it’s worth remembering that today’s student fanatic is often tomorrow’s Labour MP, BBC commissioner or museum curator.

The attack on so-called Terfs — often feminist campaigners of long standing — is absolutely typical of the genre. At Sussex, for example, Professor Stock is routinely smeared as a ‘transphobe’.

But by no reasonable definition is she transphobic. Indeed, she has defended transgender people’s right to ‘live their lives free from fear, violence, harassment or any discrimination’.

For the new witch-hunters, though, that’s not good enough. If you question their belief that you can change sex by ticking a box on a form, you make yourself a target.

Other women — and depressingly, it is almost always women — have been on the receiving end, most famously J. K. Rowling. When the Harry Potter author dared to suggest there were real biological differences between men and women, she was the victim of an appalling online campaign, culminating in death threats.

But there’s another aspect of this story which goes beyond the transgender issue, and that’s the insidious threat to academic freedom.

Mention this in Left-wing academic circles, and many scoff. According to the hard-Left head of the UCU, Jo Grady, for example, the threat to academic freedom ‘is a myth’.

Well, if you’ll forgive me, I suspect Ms Grady is either extremely stupid or extremely disingenuous.

Just ask Oxford professor Nigel Biggar, who tried to set up a five-year project about the ethics of colonialism in 2017, only to have more than 170 academics sign an open letter demanding the university shut it down, effectively trying to bully him into silence.

Or ask feminist campaigner Julie Bindel, who was invited to speak at Edinburgh University in 2019. Protesters chanted, ‘Die, cis scum’. (‘Cis’ is activist jargon for people who aren’t transgender.)

When Ms Bindel left, she was confronted by a trans woman, who screamed she was a Nazi before being dragged away by security guards.

No threat to academic freedom? How many examples does Ms Grady need?

We are witnessing a clash between a suffocating hyper-liberal orthodoxy, obsessed to the point of mania with race, gender and sexuality, and a few brave souls who dare to swim against the tide, whatever their politics.

The tragedy is that universities are supposed to be places of fearless enquiry, where academics can explore ideas without fear of ostracism. Indeed, isn’t that one of the things that defines a free society?

But that’s not the climate on campuses today. Instead, we’re moving towards an intolerant monoculture in which anybody who says the wrong thing risks being cast out.

One false step — perhaps you voted Leave, or you don’t think Boris Johnson’s so bad, or you don’t agree with Black Lives Matter, or you think biological sex is real — and you stand accused of ‘thoughtcrime’, as George Orwell once called it.


So what’s the answer? The Government has published a bill to safeguard academic freedom. I applaud the sentiment, but there’s only so much Whitehall can do.

The truth is only students and lecturers can win this fight. One academic, Professor Colin Wight, has set up an online petition to rally support for Kathleen Stock.

But why isn’t every academic in the land taking Professor Stock’s side against the bigots and bullies trying to destroy her career? 

Why aren’t more so-called intellectuals standing up for this brave and admirable woman — whose views, let’s face it, are shared by most Britons?

The answer is pretty obvious. To put it bluntly, they haven’t got the guts.

As for the rest of us, we should ask ourselves what kind of country we want to live in.

One ruled by an intolerant minority of cranks and obsessives? Or one that defends to the death a clever woman’s right to think what she likes?

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