Rishi Sunak has said that Professor Kathleen Stock has a right to be heard as he urged students to engage with the feminist academic’s views even if they disagree with her.
Prof Stock, who believes trans women are not women, will take part in an event at the Oxford Union on Tuesday evening, but her invitation prompted a backlash from trans activists.
In a rare intervention in a spat over free speech on campus, the prime minister told The Telegraph that the few outspoken people should not shut down debate and that universities should support, not suppress, controversial discussions.
He said: “A free society requires free debate. We should all be encouraged to treat others’ ideas with respect.
“The university should be an environment where debate is supported, not suppressed. We must not allow a small but noisy group to cut off discussion. Kathleen Stock’s invitation to the Oxford Union should stand.
“Agree or disagree with her, Professor Stock is an important figure in this discussion. Students should be able to hear and discuss her points of view.”
He added, “A tolerant society is one that allows us to understand those we disagree with, and nowhere is that more important than within our great universities.”
Freedom of expression under threat
The row that has engulfed Oxford University has become symbolic of the wider debate on freedom of expression in society
In the coming days, the Prime Minister will unveil Prof. Arif Ahmed of the University of Cambridge as the Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, charged with cracking down on the non-platforming of academics.
It is clear that security measures will be taken for Prof Stock’s performance as protests are planned.
The Union is a private members’ club that Oxford University students and others pay to join. It is independent of the university and the student association. It said attendees at the event will have “an opportunity to respectfully engage and challenge” Prof Stock’s views, and will be able to ask questions anonymously.
More than 40 academics, including Prof. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, and Prof. Nigel Biggar, the theologian, wrote to The Telegraph earlier this month supporting the appearance of Prof. Stock.
Oxford University later stepped in to protect free speech. The university’s student union had said it would bar the Oxford Union from its freshman scholarship, accusing the historic debating society of having a “toxic culture of bullying and harassment”.
However, the student union reversed its position after the university alerted its administrators to its freedom of expression policy.
In a letter to The Telegraph, one of the university’s pro-rectors told students to be prepared to “face and confront difficult views, including those they find disturbing, extreme or even offensive”.
Later, more than a hundred Oxford students stated in a letter that those at the university who wanted to silence free speech “do not speak for us”.
Over the weekend, a separate group of Oxford academics and staff signed a letter stating that opposition to Professor Stock’s visit was not a free speech issue, claiming that withdrawing an invitation “does not prevent them from speaking”.
Oversteer causes both sides
On Monday, Professor Stock said she was a “moderate” and that it was her opponents of trans activists who went to extremes for demanding the event be cancelled.
Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain, she said: “We need to have freedom of expression, we need to be able to talk about this.
“Of course I cause a stir. The position I’m fighting is causing a lot of commotion: you have male rapists in female prisons: that is causing a lot of commotion.
“You have kids going into transition, doing things to their bodies that they can’t reverse: that causes consternation for their parents. You have huge numbers of women who are unable to talk about sex-based rights at work because they feel suffocated: that causes dismay.”
She remained “committed to keep talking” about gender identities, saying, “We need to talk about the things that are upsetting, because those are the very points where pressure groups and activists will try to steer the conversation in a certain direction.”
Gender distinctions ‘have been around for centuries’
During the interview, Ed Balls, a former Labor Secretary and one of the presenters, outlined a scenario where he asked her, “Why do you want to tell a vulnerable young 21-year-old that she can’t be a woman because you’ve decided she’s not one may be”?
Prof Stock said: “The world decided it the way evolution decided it. It’s crazy to think that just because I make some category distinctions that have been around for centuries, and exist in every natural language, I decide who gets to be a woman , that’s not me, I’m describing the world I see.
“I think we need words to describe the differences between men and women because they matter socially.”
Prof Stock will also appear in a documentary, Gender Wars, which airs on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 10pm.
Mr Sunak’s comments come amid a wider societal debate on trans issues.
Last week, the Telegraph revealed that the former director of trans charity Mermaids was referring children to the NHS Tavistock gender clinic, even though their GP had repeatedly refused and despite the fact that she had no medical training.
And British Cycling banned trans women from competing in competitive women’s events, prompting one trans cyclist to accuse the body of “fostering a genocide”.
Police made three arrests in Hyde Park over the weekend after trans activists clashed with the organizers of a gender-critical event.