Campus censorship must not become the norm in Scotland

Last night, a censorious mob gathered at the University of Edinburgh to disrupt the screening of a documentary about women’s sex-based rights. After occupying a lecture theatre and preventing those who had booked the venue from moving the screening elsewhere, they succeeded in their aim. The screening was called off. Attendees were forced to go home.

The mob were delighted with this outcome. One ringleader, a self-described “angry teenager”, took to Twitter to gloat: “Earlier this evening myself and other activists engaged in direct action. A screening of a transphobic film was to be held at Edinburgh Uni, we decided that wasn’t happening.” “We won. They didn’t get their screening.” “Also, look how cool we look. Badass.”

In my mind, this episode isn’t anything to celebrate at all. It’s an embarrassing example of privileged adolescents, in denial about the realities of life in a democratic and pluralistic society, bullying people whose views they don’t like into silence. Their behaviour betrays an astonishing lack of intellectual fortitude – ‘no debate allowed here’ – and a complete lack of respect.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t protest views they don’t like. Civil liberties guarantee us the right to organise and express our opinions, forthrightly. However, students could have done that last night whilst also allowing others to exercise their civil liberties. This is, after all, the price of living in a free society – tolerating others’ right to speak. They don’t appear to understand this.

The justification for shutting down an event organised by academics appears to have been stopping ‘hate’. Yesterday, the editor of the University’s student paper said as much in a Twitter thread, in which she attacked the university for allowing ‘free speech’ and claimed, hysterically, that its “refusal to cancel the event in the name of ‘free speech’ [was] a decision that will incite further hatred against trans people”.

These claims simply aren’t convincing to any rational person. ‘Adult Human Female’ contains interviews with critics of gender recognition reforms being debated at Holyrood – reforms MSPs in every party recognise as contentious, and which are opposed by two thirds of the Scottish public. The concerns expressed by those who feature in it are demonstrable, rational, and widely held.

What’s transparent in those claiming ‘hate’ is a complete inability to allow critical analysis of their ideas. People who are convinced that their ideas are right – in this case, the idea the term ‘woman’ should encompass people with a penis – aren’t afraid of scrutiny. The behaviour of many who hold this view suggests, rather strongly, that they cannot back it up and persuade others via reasoned argument.

The University of Edinburgh deserves some credit for allowing the screening to go ahead last night, even if it did end in chaos. It is imperative that it now doubles down on this approach and takes steps to bolster the free speech rights of students, staff, and the general public in future. Bowing to the mob would be immensely harmful, emboldening future censorious activity.

As Edinburgh academic, and gender critical feminist, Shereen Benjamin said in a statement to journalists yesterday: “We are a university. We cannot allow a perfectly lawful and important discussion about a contested social issue to be shut by people who are zealous and dogmatic.” “Belief systems have to be open to question at a university.”

It’s disturbing to me that an episode like last night’s – straight out the playbook of far-left activism in the United States – has happened in Scotland. Our country is the seat of Reformation and Enlightenment thinking which underlined the immense benefits of allowing viewpoint diversity and free, open debate. Scotland has flourished under this approach and will decay without it.

I suppose we can’t be too surprised about what’s happening. Scotland’s political leaders abandoned a meaningful commitment to free speech long ago. For evidence of this, take the febrile debate on the Gender Bill, where critics have been patronised and blocked at every turn. Or the debate on hate crime, where MSPs paid lip service to free speech before voting through illiberal legislation.

Consider also the forthcoming ban on ‘conversion practices’ described by a leading human rights lawyer as a “radical” and “marked expansion in the powers of the State” which is “fundamentally illiberal”. When was the last time we saw legislation seeking to affirm and underline, rather than chip away at hard-won freedoms? There’s a definite trend the other way.

The air we breathe in Scotland is beginning to feel stifling. A rediscovery of, and genuine re-commitment to, fundamental liberties is needed to get us back on track.

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