Free speech versus hate speech is a controversial discussion, particularly on university campuses. Recently, the University of Sussex has defended philosophy professor Kathleen Stock after she was accused of making transphobic comments, resulting in demands for her dismissal.
Stock has stated that she believes biological sex is more important than gender identity, especially regarding law and policy. She defended herself on Twitter; “what kind of future does a university have where intimidation determines what is said or taught?”
The current debate about freedom of speech is interesting, particularly with the rise of so-called ‘political correctness’ and ‘cancel culture’. A similar situation occurred in 2016 with Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who refused to use non-binary pronouns and said that legislation that made using preferred pronouns mandatory was an attack against free speech. Peterson went on to become a prominent figure online, turning into a figurehead for anti-political correctness.
It is also important to consider when exactly free speech is advocated for and why
The right to free speech is important, especially in educational environments; learning about others’ opinions and perspectives makes us challenge our own and is often a positive thing. Many academics have defended Stock and argue for academic freedom and the right to an open discussion. No-one deserves to be subjected to harassment or bullying no matter what their beliefs are. However, it is also important to consider when exactly free speech is advocated for and why.
It seems to be a trend that the freedom of speech argument is referred to specifically when discussing transgender and non-binary issues. Rather than focusing on issues such as their rights or well-being, the conversation often shifts to whether having to use preferred pronouns is an attack on free speech, similar to Jordan Peterson’s statements.
As a university, shouldn’t they be prioritising their students’ safety as well as their staff’s?
What is more interesting than Stock’s comments or whether or not they are transphobic is the reaction from the University itself; they have defended Stock and her right to say what she thinks without being harassed or under threat of dismissal. Whether Stock remaining at the university was the right decision, it seems like the least they could have done was to also state that their views do not align with hers whilst expressing support for their transgender and non-binary students. As a university, shouldn’t they be prioritising their students’ safety as well as their staff’s?
The comments become more concerning within the context of the marginalisation of the trans and non-binary communities as well as their representation in the media- with the press often bringing up free speech as a way to justify transphobia as well as exaggerating detransition rates (in the 2015 transgender survey, they found only 8% of participants de-transitioned, with the number one reason being not accepted by family and their community). The hate crime statistics against trans people are also shocking- with four out of five experiencing a hate crime in 2020.
According to Stonewall, whilst trans people and allies are willing to discuss equality, they are not willing to ‘debate whether or not they have a right to be themselves or have rights as citizens under the law’. This is in order to shift the focus towards trans rights rather than whether or not they exist, which seems more pressing within the context of hate crime statistics and negative media representation, as well difficulties being able to get gender reassignment surgery and a Gender Recognition Certificate.
For a university to not express support for trans and non-binary students- especially within this context- is failing to be inclusive and does not prioritise their mental health, comfort and safety or set the example for others on campus to make it a place where everyone feels safe.
Kathleen Stock has the right to say whatever she wants, but so does everyone else. Freedom of speech does not mean immunity to consequences or being held accountable. Whilst many argue that regulating speech could be a slippery slope into regulating other human behaviour, not regulating hate speech is also a slippery slope into allowing abuse and harassment towards marginalised groups.
With that in mind, any abuse or harassment towards Stock should not be tolerated either; Stock has been teaching online for fears over her safety. However, the students requesting her dismissal and peacefully protesting her comments are, like Stock, using their right to freedom of speech, and should not be portrayed as harassing or abusing her.
It is also important for students to know that there are ways to deal with when a member of staff at their university might say something they don’t agree with or that they deem inappropriate. Regarding less serious disagreements, the student can obviously informally discuss it with their lecturer or tutor. If a more serious incident occurs that a student feels is inappropriate or discriminatory in any way, there are more formal routes, including filing a complaint form. For information on the University of Nottingham’s system, visit The Student Complaint Procedure page.
Freedom of speech is a privilege, and no one should experience abuse or threats of violence no matter what their opinions are. However, whilst everyone has a right to say what they want, everyone also has a right to say that they don’t agree with it.
In article image courtesy of @socialistworkerstudentsociety via Instagram. No changes were made to this image.
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