Academic freedom is not freedom to discriminate

Last week a scheduled talk at Australia’s largest philosophy conference caused a public furore around transgender rights and freedom of speech. Holly Lawford-Smith, a prominent University of Melbourne political philosopher, delivered a talk on ‘Women-only Spaces and the Right to Exclude’ at Australasian Association of Philosophy’s annual conference in Wollongong. This came after the UNSW Philosophy Society and I wrote a public letter condemning the talk that was co-signed by fourteen university student groups, and a protest had been planned outside the event by the University of Wollongong student union. Lawford-Smith defended the idea that women-exclusive spaces should have the right to exclude people of different biological sex, regardless of their gender, aiming to exclude people who are transgender from participating in women-only spaces. This conflicted with my own stance, as well as the general view in the student community, that transgender women have a right to participate in women’s spaces, and that Lawford-Smith’s speech amounted to defending discrimination.

The letter and protest caused uproar in the academic community. Furious academics took to Facebook and Twitter to either condemn or defend the letter. But instead of transgender rights in academia, the debate ended up focussing on the right of Lawford-Smith to speak, while the protest was cancelled due to political pressure.

Academics, especially in the humanities, make a career out of debating, challenging, and testing ideas. The argument advanced by many over the last week is that, in order for free inquiry to take place, academics must be able to explore ideas freely, without interference. I believe in this principle in general – but I also believe the way it is often applied is harmful to the purpose of academic inquiry itself. Powerful inquiry does more than describe abstract and disconnected phenomena. The case being advanced by Lawford-Smith is centres in the abstract on the relationship between sex and gender, but deals more broadly with the live political issue of transgender rights, which requires guidance on how to act in the real world.

If academic inquiry affects real social debates, are academics to be held accountable for their ideas? The argument levied against our letter was that it amounted to mobbing and undermined the ability of academics to exchange and build upon ideas freely, thus stunting the growth of useful ideas more generally. It was argued that if protests and letters of dissent were posted for every new radical concept, philosophy would be subject to a pressure that would limit its inquiry. The instinct to resist such pressures is not itself wrong. However, I would say that the question of external pressure on philosophical inquiry is far broader than political interventions from grassroots political groups alone, as we can see from recent government interventions in funding, and the established history of philanthropists or business interests directing research.

If you are noticing parallels between the debate around academic free speech and Folau’s religious freedom case, you’re not seeing double. Both question the extent to which the right to free speech applies to discrimination. In both the Folau case and the Lawford-Smith case, the issue at hand is whether to prioritise our commitment to free speech or ir commitment to fight discrimination.

I believe that nobody should be immune from the consequences of their speech. Academics do not have a special status that gives them a right to discriminate. If the point of academic inquiry, beyond debating and discovering ideas in theory, is to change the world in practice, then it should take the consequences of its research seriously. In this case, that consequence is a direct and tangible impact on the lives of transgender women and their safety and acceptance in the academic and broader community.

The letter and the call to protest were a form of accountability and are entirely justified as a response to the talk’s discriminatory content. In defending them, I’m not suggesting that the government should have a right to intervene in or legislate about these debates (even though the state intervenes in the lives of transgender people far more than any academic). What I am suggesting is that communities should have a license to question institutions or individuals who advance political ideas that are antithetical to their peaceful existence. In the case at hand, Lawford-Smith was called to account for the consequences of her speech. Flipping the script to say that the community was attacking academic freedom denies that community a reasonable method of political expression.

I do not wish to deny these issues are complicated, nor am I endorsing ‘cancel culture’ whereby people are removed altogether or see their careers ended as a result of holding discriminatory opinions when they could be held accountable for them in a productive way instead. Ultimately, however, academics should not get a free pass to discriminate without accountability. For if we deny the real impact that speech can have on people’s lives, then why is it worth defending speech at all?


Image: Alan Levine, Flickr

Toby Walmsley

Toby Walmsley is an honours student in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales.

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    1. Since the left who used to be champions of free speech gained the upper hand and now seek to silence that which their predecessors fought for, when what is being said disagrees with their values. There is a philosophical term for it. Hypocrisy.

      1. Hypocrisy a philosophical term, really? Try and justify that!

        The claim that Lawford-Smith doesn’t have a philosophical leg to stand on is the topic of another essay. That is not Toby’s position here. However in the context of a purely political rhetoric, which is where Lawford-Smith’s writing belongs, it’s difficult to dispute the claim that, “. . . communities should have a license to question institutions or individuals who advance political ideas that are antithetical to their peaceful existence […] Flipping the script to say that the community was attacking academic freedom denies that community a reasonable method of political expression.”

        While challenging the “winner takes all” approach to free speech is quite reasonable, the rhetoric of Lawford-Smith and other hard gender-critical positions goes well beyond any “their values vs. ours” debate. Rather, such writing has typically taken the form, overtly or covertly, of complete dismissal, an unwarranted denial of the very existence of a valid form of life on the flimsiest of grounds.

  1. beautifully put! academics have the right to put forward their ideas, and others in turn have the right to reject or condemn those ideas as harmful.

  2. What is the appropriate forum for philosophy to contest gender, if not a conference like this? Is there a place for this speaker anywhere, or ought their views be entirely deplatformed?, which you don’t appear to be arguing for. So what then?

    I think challenging her on the terrain of philosophy would be more fruitful than vacating that space to inflict the appropriate consequences on her from outside. Wouldn’t gender be a premise to challenge in her paper?

    Yet, there isn’t anything in this piece that tells us anything about her argument and why you disagree with it. What does a person really have to make of it but stern, earnest, nodding agreement?

    I’m also aware that this isn’t the first time that this philosopher has been called out like this, either. That context, and those arguments, might have been helpful, too.

    1. The issue at hand is that Lawford-Smith’s (and the gender critical movement as a whole) has been challenged, argued with, and disagreed with extensively, with persuasive arguments and persuasive alternatives actually implemented in concrete political spaces. In actual women’s and queer spaces where the politics she discusses play out, the political debate has swung far beyond her position to trans acceptance. That’s why over 14 women’s and queer spaces and collectives signed on to the linked open letter to say her views were discriminatory and harmful.

      A full context surrounding the gender critical movement would be far outside the scope of this small article, which was challenging the shift of terrain that many academics used to justify her speech regardless of their opinion on its content. What this article is arguing is that community accountability is a legitimate way to challenge ideas that emerge from the academy. Despite the fear mongering of some in the academic community who believed this to be the end of free speech, it’s reasonable that academics should have to face community backlash if their ideas are trash, because that upholds the quality of ideas that emerge from it. My challenge to you would be: if this form of accountability is unacceptable, which form is?

  3. Presenting this issue as a question of “freedom of speech vs discrimination” along the lines of the Folau case is begging the question – to assert that this is a case of discrimination is to assume the answer to the questions raised by Dr Lawford-Smith in her talk (presumably, anyway – I did not attend the conference so have only the title to go on).

    You state that “transgender women have a right to participate in women’s spaces”, which is fair enough, and the thrust of your article seems to be that the violation of this right amounts to discrimination against transwomen – again, fair enough. But rights can be infringed without being violated, and the infringement of a right for good reasons is not discriminatory. Are there good reasons to infringe transwomen’s right to access women’s spaces? I have no idea. It’s possible that there are not, and that denying transwomen access to these spaces is indeed discriminatory. But how are we ever going to know the answer to this question if people do not have the academic freedom to investigate and discuss it?

  4. Perhaps I’m missing the broader context, left out of this article. But it seems to me the immediate assumption that this philosopher’s ideas must innately be discriminatory is problematic. Thinkers must express their ideas, and be judged on them accordingly (and correctly, for their consequences as well as their theory). There may well be convincing feminist arguments for female-only spaces (I’ve never been convinced by them myself). Refusing to hear these arguments out sounds to me like just another knee-jerk form of exclusion.

    1. Hey Patrick. You’re absolutely right to sense that there’s further context. Lawford-Smith has a reputation for advocating for a ‘Gender Critical’ stance, and this talk was one paper among many advocating for trans exclusion. I agree with you on the point that it cannot be immediately assumed ideas are discriminatory, but in this case Lawford-Smith had already argued their case for women-only spaces being determined on the basis of ‘sex’, and the thrust of her talk was no different in content. My reason for not prioritising this context was not only that there are far, far more in-depth and nuanced analysis of the ‘Gender Critical’ movement than I could offer, but also that I was interested in investigating the shift of terrain that various academics made to defend Lawford-Smith’s talk, regardless of their opinion of whether it was discriminatory. A full and honest discussion of the stances over how and why its discriminatory would have detracted from rebutting that specific argument – an argument started by ‘gender critical’ supporters, I add.

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