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To protect freedom of speech, universities should disaffiliate from Stonewall
This week, the London School of Economics (LSE) ended its relationship with the LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall. The decision follows debates about freedom of speech. In recent years, Stonewall have adopted a partisan stance on the transgender issue, adopting a controversial ‘no debate’ policy and opposing the collection of data on sex; critics argue that this erodes freedom of speech.
I agree. Universities should avoid taking sides in debates, particularly contentious ones, instead upholding environments in which academic freedom can thrive. Traditionally, universities do not affiliate with organizations which promote partisan agendas, independence from churches being a defining step in university history. This reflects a liberal vision. As Francis Fukuyama writes in his new book, liberalism is a thin ideology, stipulating that all voices should be heard equally, rather than sponsoring one position.
To this day, British universities are unaffiliated with other organizations which advocate partisan stances. Were universities affiliated with the Trades Union Congress or Sex Matters (a gender-critical group), I would be equally opposed.
The need to create environments which foster free inquiry underpins this. Whilst debate about freedom of speech tends to focus on legal frameworks, atmospheres which promote the value are equally important, Mill emphasizing this in On Liberty. Stonewall membership lies in tension with this, particularly its no debate policy. More broadly, the transgender issue is unusually difficult. Violent threats are common, cowing dissenters into silence.
I am no stranger to this. In June 2021, 15 colleagues and I signed an open letter which suggested that Cardiff University should leave Stonewall. A campus protest was held, at which protesters circulated a leaflet with our names and photos, the headline ‘ACT NOW’ and a cartoon of a woman raising a gun. In the Facebook group of the university LGBT+ society, a student threatened to kneecap me. Across the sector, similar threats are common. At the LSE, a student conference featured a paper in which the author fantasized about holding a knife to the throat of ‘TERFs’ (a pejorative term for gender-critical feminists).
This atmosphere means that preference falsification is rife. Preference falsification is a key concept in institutional theory, involving the misrepresentation of preferences under social pressure. Aside from implications for freedom, preference falsification entails the misallocation of preferences and the preservation of unpopular institutions.
For years, preference falsification has been a problem – repeatedly, one encounters shy academics – yet its extent may be greater than many suspected. In a December 2021 secret ballot of University College London (UCL) academics, probably representative of wider opinion in British universities, 59% voted for UCL to remain outside of the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme, 31% voting to rejoin.
People have the right to private opinions, the temperature in this area making shyness understandable, yet discrepancies with the numbers of vocal people suggests a crisis. In a sector in which freedom of speech is unusually important – academic research cannot take place without it - this will not do.
Opponents of Stonewall should not overstate their case. There are limits to the influence of Stonewall on universities - it is just one influence among many – and some exaggerate its existing influence. Challenges are far wider than Stonewall membership. Despite UCL’s disaffiliation, the issue remains difficult at the institution, reflecting the wider climate. Notwithstanding these caveats, Stonewall disaffiliation is a step in the right direction.
If universities do not address these issues, we should worry about the future. In which area will preference falsification develop next? Academics should investigate controversial topics; important areas, such as the transgender issue, cannot become off limits. Should universities become associated with partisan stances and the stigmatization of dissenters, outgroups such as gender-critical feminists may avoid academic careers, reinforcing these problems and becoming part of sectoral path dependency.
Perhaps it is too late. In contrast to the 20th century, during which conservatives were most sensitive, progressive sensibilities now present the greatest challenge to freedom of speech. This entails a particular challenge for universities, progressives being entrenched in the sector.
Sensitivities are understandable - transgender people are a vulnerable minority, deserving protection – yet universities cannot shield the sensibilities of any group from criticism. Where does this end? Religious people can be equally sensitive to slights on their faith. If concessions are made, universities become something else.
Given the extent of preference falsification in academia, grassroots opposition to Stonewall is unlikely. University leaders should show initiative, taking account of silent opposition and the need to preserve freedom of speech. This week, LSE have taken an admirable stand; more universities should follow its lead.
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