Universities must uphold basic freedoms

Scotland is renowned as a seat of the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation – two seismic historical events that laid the groundwork for modern, liberal democracies and demonstrated the value of individual liberties including free of speech, and free conscience. You probably wouldn’t guess this considering the illiberal goings on in our nation’s capital of late. Last month, we endured the embarrassing spectacle of Edinburgh University – one of the oldest and most prestigious educational institutions in Western Europe – cancelling the screening of a feminist film critiquing gender ideology. It’s the second time a screening of “Adult Human Female” has been halted at the university after angry protesting by flag-waving ‘progressives’.

The film’s detractors allege that it is ‘hateful’ and ‘transphobic’. There’s nothing in it that would support this allegation. I’d suggest the real problem for opponents – and the source of their anger – is that the film is truthful. It utters an unforgivable heresy against gender dogma. Namely, that women are, in fact, adult human females and it is important to take account of this in law and policy. Given scientific consensus and public opinion supports material realities about womanhood, gender ideologues seek to force compliance with their views by browbeating, silencing, and maligning critics. They cannot defend their ideas in the free air of debate, persuading others to their point of view by reasoned argument, so they try to shut up opponents instead.

The second illiberal event we’ve witnessed is the no-platforming of Joanna Cherry MP, an outspoken “gender critical” feminist, by Edinburgh comedy club The Stand. Ms Cherry was due to take part in an ‘In conversation with’ event at the venue during the Edinburgh Fringe. Staff who don’t like her views objected, and the event was cancelled by club bosses. In rather the same vein as the women behind ‘Adult Human Female’, Cherry has been bullied out of a platform to discuss her ideas by individuals who lack the maturity to deal with hearing things they don’t like. Ms Cherry has a good case for discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief, which she may yet choose to pursue. If she does, she’ll likely win.

I find the events surrounding ‘Adult Human Female’ and Joanna Cherry troubling, but the former is particularly egregious. As Ms Cherry has pointed out, she has the means to defend herself in court and a significant public profile to air her views. Others in Scotland depend on public institutions like universities offering a space for the free exchange of ideas. Universities should be a space for free inquiry and robust debate. Yet, they are failing the public. ‘No platforming’ is a growing phenomenon. Academics are punished for ascribing to views outwith the parameters of political correctness. Students are barred from expressing their closely held beliefs. All of this is antithetical to the core purpose of higher education: education.

We cannot expect to progress well as a society if the precious liberties that underpin our democratic way of life continue to be undermined. If universities will not uphold the most basic freedoms we have – if they continue to be held to ransom by illiberal elements that want their own ideas to be unassailable – perhaps the state should step in. Let’s see Holyrood pass legislation requiring universities in Scotland to uphold civil liberties or face stiff penalties. I suspect institutions would soon rediscover their support for free speech. Perhaps, given the censorious tendencies of some politicians, that kind of law is a bad idea. Some may favour grassroots efforts to win people over to free speech, and joint action in defiance of censors.

We have to do something. If we fail to curb illiberal culture emerging in Scotland now, we’ll find ourselves in a very dark place in years to come.

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