In defence of free speech: two letters to Massey University

If this is how you propose to defend free speech, then freedom of speech is in grave danger

An open letter from James Robb to Jan Thomas, Vice-chancellor of Massey University

Massey University in Wellington is the venue for an event on 13 November called Feminism 2020, organised by Speak Up For Women (SU4W). The university has come under pressure from rightist forces masquerading under the banner of transgender rights to break its contract with the meeting organisers and cancel the booking. At the time of writing, the university has resisted the pressure to cancel the venue booking. However, on 27 September it released a statement which can only be read as paving the way for cancelling the meeting. This open letter was written in response to that statement.

Dear Ms Thomas,

I commend Massey University’s stated commitment to free speech, and in particular, its decision to host the event Feminism 2020 in face of criticism and pressure to shut the meeting down.

However, the statement released by the University, supposedly in explanation and defence of that decision, was anything but commendable. On the contrary, it signifies an unwarranted caving in to the pressure to shut the meeting down, and paves the way for reversing the correct original decision. It is a cowardly and disgraceful statement. If this is how you propose to defend free speech, then freedom of speech is in grave danger.

After making the customary platitudes about “our commitment to diversity and inclusion”, the statement makes it very clear that “we do not in any way share the views of the speakers of this event.”

That is your right. But I find on the organisers’ website that SU4W believes that “Women are adult human females; girls are human female children. Women and girls have the right to live free of violence, including sexual abuse or violence. Women and girls have the right to organise and gather in safe, sex-segregated spaces.”

Are these the views that you “do not in any way share”? In that case, I must wonder about your proclaimed “commitment to diversity and inclusion”, since it appears not to be inclusive of the half of humanity that is female.

But perhaps you are not basing your statement concerning the views of the speakers on what those speakers say for themselves. Perhaps your energetic disavowal of their views is based on ideas falsely attributed to them by those who are trying to shut the meeting down?

In that case, I must wonder about the University’s commitment to factual accuracy and truth, which, I’m sure you would agree, must also be a “fundamental tenet of a university.”

In any case, I challenge you to find anything objectionable in any of the many published writings of Meghan Murphy, Holly Lawford-Smith or any of the other speakers, or anything on their websites or the website of SU4W. You may find in those places ideas that you disagree with, but you will not find a single word that in any way promotes discrimination, or prejudice, or violence against transgender people.

The safety and well-being of Massey University students and staff are indeed under threat. But not from the feminists or the ideas they espouse. Let me say clearly what the university seems strangely incapable of recognising: No person’s safety and well-being is ever endangered simply by being confronted with ideas which they find disagreeable. If you cannot recognise this simple truth, you will be forever helpless to defend free speech. And, I might add, you will be unable to function as an institution of learning, since students who only encounter ideas which they already know and approve of will, by definition, be learning nothing new.

No – free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of expression are not “nuanced”. It would be more accurate to say that these fundamental rights are under sustained attack, and nowhere more so than in the very institutions to which many people look to uphold them – the universities. It is your responsibility as Vice-chancellor to confront these attacks.

The threat to the safety of students, staff and the wider public comes exclusively from those who are attempting to get the meeting shut down. One only need look at the scene outside a similar event a week ago in the UK for evidence of that, with protestors hurling abuse and intimidation at people attempting to find their way into the meeting.

Make no mistake, from this moment on, the eyes of the world will be on Massey University. The credibility of the university and its reputation as an institution of learning are on the line. If Massey continues to capitulate to the self-appointed censors, if it fails to defend freedom of speech, the respect it currently enjoys in the wider community will crumble like a sandcastle in the incoming tide.

I urge you to learn from the sorry experiences of the American universities that have been down this path already, and are now held in contempt and ridicule by their own communities.

I urge you to stop kowtowing to the censorship brigade, with such contemptible gestures as festooning the campus with their flags and donating money to their organisations. They will not be appeased. They will be satisfied with nothing less than total capitulation and the wrecking of the meeting.

Let Massey University be the one which turns and confronts the threats to freedom of speech, academic freedom and freedom of expression at their source.

From James Robb’s website Convincing Reasons

Concern over the way that issues such as free speech are being addressed

A letter from John Edmundson to Jan Thomas, Vice-chancellor of Massey University

Dear Ms Thomas,

I have been following the controversy surrounding events such as Feminism 2020 for some time and have felt a rising concern over the way that issues such as free speech are being addressed. The press release from Massey University states that Massey, and presumably you as an individual, “do not in any way share the views of the speakers of this event”. As you will by now be aware, SU4W’s eight guiding principles state nothing that would in different circumstances be deemed controversial, yet in the face of this controversy have come to be deemed “hate speech”. Those guiding principles are as follows:

1. Women are adult human females; girls are human female children.

2. Women and girls have the right to live free of violence, including sexual abuse or violence.

3. Women and girls have the right to organise and gather in safe, sex-segregated spaces.

4. Women and girls have a right to reproductive sovereignty.

5. Women and girls have the right to live free from commercial sexual exploitation.

6. Women and girls have the right to economic independence, pay equity, and living wages, including that which pertains to reproductive labour, child-raising, and domestic work.

7. Lesbians are exclusively same-sex attracted females and have the right to assert their same-sex attraction without facing harassment.

8. ‘Sex’ refers to the biological characteristics that distinguish males from females. Sex is immutable. ‘Gender’ refers to the stereotyped roles, behaviours and attributes that society at a given time considers appropriate for males and females.

If such views are “hate speech”, then the men who accused the women’s rights activists of the past of man-hating were in fact correct. I doubt that this is a view you would hold. Yet if these statements are hate speech and are views “you do not in any way share”, you are denying the validity of those hard-fought campaigns to gain basic dignity and rights to safety for women in the form of shelters for women whose experience of abuse means they need a space where they can be together with other women while they process their trauma. Trans women need such spaces too, but is it “hate speech”, as opponents of Feminism 2020 assert, to say that these spaces should not be one and the same? My father worked for an agency that ran a safe house for abused women. Its location was kept a close secret to prevent abusers from tracking down and assaulting or killing those vulnerable women. Should such places now be accessible to “self identified” women who are in fact biologically male?

You declare that you “do not in any way share the views of the speakers of this event”. Does this mean that you disagree with Holly Lawford-Smith and Meghan Murphy, the two keynote speakers, when they say the following? “Despite the fact that this [Gender self identification] bill changes what it means to be a person of a particular sex in law, and despite the fact that sex is a protected attribute in both the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act and the Australian Sex Discrimination Act, the group that faces the most sex discrimination — namely female people — have not been consulted about the bill, and the implications of the bill on their legal protections, if any, have not been adequately acknowledged or explored.” (Lawford-Smith) It strikes me as common sense that women should be permitted to be part of the discussion rather than at best ignored or at worst intimidated and silenced. In relation to the Yaniv case (a non-transitioned trans woman who is suing largely immigrant women for not waxing the penis and testicles) in Canada, “How can we possibly protect women’s boundaries, spaces and rights if men can be women, regardless of their male biology? No woman should be bullied into touching a man’s penis against her will.” (Murphy)

Nowhere in my reading of this debate have I ever seen serious gender-critical feminists or their allies displaying transphobia. In fact, the arguments are often preceded by clear statements of the need for trans people to be protected from discrimination and violence. What they object to is precisely what they identify in the above quotes – the erosion of hard-fought women’s rights in the interests of male born (hate speech apparently) having access to those women-only spaces, spaces women have come to take for granted and for the most part, have no idea are under threat.

The issue of balancing the rights of female-born and trans rights is an important one and should not result in the rights of women being traded away for the benefit of people who were born male but ‘self declare as women’, as is currently happening. I do not believe it an accident that these battles are being fought over traditionally women’s spaces. Is there a campaign to remove the word “men” from the prostate-screening programme? Is there a vocal campaign to rename men as “non-women”, “testicle-possessors” or “penis-possessors”, as there are to redefine women as “non-men” (google this elimination of women from language – it is a real part of this campaign), breeders, lactators or menstruators. This is what the university aligns itself with when it decides to prioritise the Trans rights activists’ campaign over the defense of women’s rights. Meanwhile, the views of other trans people such as Miranda Yardley are ignored.(See the letter below from The Times). Yardley identifies with the struggle to protect women’s rights from the attacks of elements within the trans community – elements with which she feels no common cause.

I strongly encourage you and the university to revisit your decision to align yourselves with one side of this debate and to declare instead an unequivocal support for free speech and open debate on this contentious issue.

Plea to Trans Lobby – A letter in The Times 08.12.18

The original can be seen here.

Sir, As transsexual people we are dismayed by the escalation in harassment, threats and abuse directed at women and women’s groups in the name of “transgender rights activism” (“Trans lobby sent me death threats, claims professor”, Dec 6). In the past few years violent rhetoric on social media has spilt over into real life too often. After the harassment of Julie Bindel and the Working Class Movement Library, the physical assault on Maria Maclachlan and the recent use of “masked-up” tactics at a feminist meeting in Bristol, we are horrified by the intimidation and abuse directed at the human rights expert Rosa Freedman.

We seek to find common cause with women against male violence and we condemn the threats, harassment and intimidation of women who argue that sex-based protections are vital in a society still punctuated by sexism. Women are oppressed because of their sex, not some metaphysical gender identity. We are concerned that women are being dehumanised as “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) in order for abusive males to unleash misogynistic rhetoric and violent abuse with impunity.

We call for respectful discussion and debate, and for transgender rights activists to distance themselves from physical violence and attacks on free speech carried out in their name.

Debbie Hayton; Miranda Yardley; Danielle Elizabeth; Kristina Harrison; Emma Haywood; Seven Hex; Ashlee Kelly; Jennifer Kenyon; Kay Meddings; Leanne Mills; Carol Nixon; Fionne Orlander; Jenny Randles; Gillian Simpson; Melissa Symes; Jay Walmsley

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