Academic Freedom in the Media: Who Is Being Silenced?

Academic Freedom in the Media: Who Is Being Silenced?
transgender rights march protest Image by Ted Eyton

This is part one of a two-part essay, discussing the controversy surrounding Kathleen Stock. Part two covers the case of Peter Boghossian.

Each year when fall arrives, the leaves change color, the students return to campus, and the media rings one of its favorite old bells: academic freedom is under threat. The fall of 2021 has been no different, bringing hundreds of articles, thinkpieces, tweets and blog posts focused on one or another academic whose freedom has apparently been violated, usually by ostensibly left-leaning students. The hand-wringers never seem to define “academic freedom” or specify how any particular anecdote is an example of the violation thereof. To investigate whether this framing is justified, we can take one of a litany of examples, the Twitter thread posted by the Economist on October 19, 2021, and check its claims, the first and most central being that academic freedom is being stifled in universities. 

The cover of an anthology from 1995  /  Image from Twitter @TheEconomist

What is academic freedom?

Journalists should be careful not to misinform the public by suggesting that academic freedom and free-speech assurances protect instructors from the consequences of discriminatory or otherwise fireable behavior. Academic freedom, according to the American Association of University Professors, is the freedom to do research, publish results, and discuss their subject in the classroom without undue interference. If we focus on controversial statements made outside the classroom, as many of these stories tend to, the statement specifies that a college or university teacher “should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations … hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” The question of college and university teachers speaking as citizens, rather than as educators and researchers, is further clarified in the 1970 comments: “If the administration of a college or university feels that … the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges under paragraph 4 of the section on Academic Tenure [which pertains to termination for cause].” 

In the UK, protections for academic freedom are somewhat less explicit, but the Education Reform Act of 1988 generally affirms the instructor’s freedom to teach and research without undue interference or loss of employment. These protections only extend to speech “within the law,” meaning that discrimination is not protected. Plans are underway to implement more specific mechanisms to ensure academic freedom in the UK, though reports suggest that the greatest threats come from university administrators and the state security apparatus, not from students.

As a general rule, academic freedom means that college and university teachers have the right to speak their opinions, but that right does not extend to protect them from professional consequences if they violate the rights of others or demonstrate that they cannot effectively do their job as an educator. The thread posted by The Economist on the 19th discusses three university instructors who, according to them, have had their academic freedoms violated. To determine whether that is true, the details of each case should be carefully laid out and investigated beyond uncritically reproducing the claims of the three scholars. I discuss the first of these in the present article and will discuss the other two in Part 2.

Kathleen Stock

Kathleen Stock was, until October 28, 2021, a professor at the University of Sussex, where she specialized in the philosophy of fiction. This is the only topic on which Stock has any peer-reviewed work. She is not, however, focused on philosophy of fiction at this time, preferring instead to focus on non-academic writings, non-peer-reviewed commentary pieces in academic journals, broadcast appearances, and activism aimed at rolling back the rights of trans people in the UK. In light of her activism, Sussex students have organized protests, stating that they object that she is a trustee of the LGB Alliance, considered by many to be an anti-trans group masquerading as a gay rights organization, and that she signed a declaration by the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, an organization that is committed to outlawing “the practice of transgenderism.” Media covering her resignation have not reported this accurately, claiming that the students are simply offended by Stock’s personally held beliefs: Andrew Crowley for The Times writes, “Stock does not believe people can change their biological sex, a view that has prompted protests from students on campus and calls for her to be sacked.” 

Since the beginning of the protests, Sussex University has consistently affirmed that they had no intention of terminating Stock or initiating any disciplinary action against her; however, Stock suddenly withdrew from teaching in October, leaving the university unable to cover her classes for a week. Then, on October 28, she officially resigned. A message from Vice-Chancellor Tickell to all students and staff continued to insist that the only problem their campus is facing is that a professor’s “academic freedom and lawful freedom of speech” has been jeopardized by “bullying and harassment.” He goes on to say, “it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of sex and of philosophical belief,” reinforcing the misconception that it was Stock’s beliefs about sex and gender that prompted the protests, rather than her discriminatory actions. He makes no mention at all of any actions on the part of Stock beyond her “beliefs,” but I will detail them here so there is no confusion as to what the students at Sussex and in Stock’s field have had to endure.

Images from Twitter @TheEconomist

The Economist makes several claims here. First, that Stock is experiencing harassment. Second, that there is a “stifling orthodoxy” in British universities. Third, that Stock’s “credentials” should insulate her from the label of transphobia: she is after all a liberal lesbian feminist with an OBE. And finally, that her claims are “vanilla.” These claims range from difficult to support to outright false.

Is Stock being harassed?

Stock’s defenders have argued that she was harassed. Certainly this claim was repeated uncritically by multiple press outlets. In UK law, harassment requires that someone be the target of repeated unwanted contact that offends, intimidates, or humiliates them. The 2010 Equality Act specifies that one is harassed if the unwanted contact is targeted based on a protected characteristic such as gender, race, religion or philosophical belief. The employment case of Forstater v CGD Europe recently defined gender critical beliefs as a protected philosophical belief in the same way that beliefs such as “marriage is between a man and a woman” are protected: one cannot be denied employment based on just believing that. If, however, that belief causes someone to do their job badly (like denying marriage certificates to same-sex couples), they are no longer protected. This decision also does not protect anyone from being the subject of protests that object to their behavior, even if that behavior is informed by their protected belief. Protest is protected by UK law just as it is in the US. People are allowed to protest when someone’s religion inspires them to campaign against civil rights for gay people, and they are allowed to protest when someone’s gender critical philosophy inspires them to use their academic affiliation to add credence to their beliefs about a protected group, give expert testimony to parliament in favor of removing trans rights, or give support to organizations that lobby for that cause.

One of the ways Stock and her defenders have argued that the students were guilty of misconduct was to frame their actions as threats rather than normal forms of protest. For example, Stock claims that police advised her not to go to campus without security guards for her own safety, though no evidence has been provided that this advice was given, let alone as a response to actual harassment. Stock volunteered this claim when speaking to journalists from the Sunday Times, but the article did not provide any reason other than having seen posters on campus, which made her cry. While it appears that Stock’s experience is not legally harassment, it is reasonable to empathize with the genuine distress one would feel if their workplace were filled with people and written materials demanding their removal. Even if they were absolutely within their rights to do so, the feeling Stock likely experienced probably did amount to something like offense, intimidation, or humiliation. This section is not meant to detract from those valid feelings, but to investigate the question of whether the protesters are guilty of anything that would require censure.

Here is what has happened. Students have protested on campus with posters and slogans. Stickers were allegedly placed on or near her office saying, “If your feminism doesn’t include ALL women it’s NOT FEMINISM. Terfs Not Welcome Here.” There are no images or other evidence of these, but stickers are confirmed to have been placed in a tunnel station near campus that said various slogans such as “It’s not a debate, it’s not feminism, it’s not philosophy. It’s just transphobia and it’s not on,” and “Kathleen Stock makes trans students unsafe. Sussex still pays her.” There is nothing in any of these stickers that constitute a threat.

Images from Instagram @antiterfsussex

Others have suggested that a student using blue and pink smoke as part of the protest display constituted a threat. This would be difficult to justify in a legal sense, as all it did was create an interesting color effect evoking the trans flag. If that is in fact a threat, then every rock concert since the invention of colored smoke should be investigated. 

Image from Instagram @antterfsussex

Another popular accusation was that students wearing black hoodies and masks and holding an umbrella suggested an “assault rifle motif,” which stretches the imagination even more. Stock does say that she received a tweet that features a man with a gun and the text, “Kathleen Stock rest your weary head,” which actually is a threat, although there is no evidence that this person has any connection to the university or any ability to access her. Still, this kind of threat is disturbing.

Whether what has happened to her is harassment or not, she is arguably quite guilty of harassment herself. 

Her first successful campaign to silence a student is documented in this thread by Associate Professor Grace Lavery of UC Berkeley. In September 2018, Nathan Oseroff, a student at King’s College, responded on Twitter to an article in which Stock expressed the opinion that philosophy departments are made unsafe when academics are not allowed to “challenge currently popular beliefs or ideologies for fear of offending.” His opinion was that Stock publicly advocated “bigotry and intolerance,” which constitutes hate directed at her students and colleagues, and this was what made departments unsafe. Stock chose to link to Oseroff’s tweet, asking her followers not to dogpile him but also saying to him, “oh do fuck off, you complete and utter dickhead.” She then accused him of defamation and defended her attacks by suggesting that his position as an editor (she apparently mistakenly believed he was the editor) with the Blog of the American Philosophical Association, made him “hardly powerless.” She went on to contact University of Chicago Law School philosophy professor Brian Leiter, who published a statement on his well-known blog, “Leiter Reports,” in which he accused Oseroff of libel. Finally, Stock emailed Oseroff’s boss at the blog, suggesting that his tweet was harassment (Stock has a tendency to call things “harassment” or “defamation” that certainly are not). Leiter also campaigned to have Oseroff fired from the APA. It appears that Oseroff was only allowed to remain on staff at the blog on the condition that he publicly apologize to Stock for tweeting his opinion. Oseroff was let go some months later, after the APA received calls complaining about him, and Leiter gloated that he’d been fired. So it was Oseroff, a graduate student, not Stock, who sustained unearned reputational damage and was prevented from correcting the record through professional intimidation and institutional apathy. Oseroff no longer works in academia, but his departure was not announced in every major media outlet in his country like Stock’s was.

Less than two months after Oseroff’s tweet, Katie Tobin, a student at Sussex University, published an article in the student newspaper, The Sussex Tab, describing the effect of Stock’s anti-trans activism and statements on students. Stock contacted the newspaper to make them retract the article and replace it with a “correction” that assured readers of her commitment to preserving the rights of trans students. A commitment that she very explicitly undermines in the email described in that retracted article, in which she discusses her interest in preventing “biologically male, genetically-intact trans women” from occupying “female only spaces” and insinuates that “structural male violence” has an impact on that question. She also refers to an “unprecedented rise” in transitioning teenagers and children, raises questions about trans women in women’s sports, and more. After Tobin’s article was retracted, Stock also tweeted about it, threatening to sue Tobin, referring to her by name and sharing her Twitter handle, which caused her to receive violent threats from Stock’s defenders. When Tobin went to the school to report this harassment, an investigation cleared Stock but awarded Tobin a payment for the distress she experienced at Stock’s hands. The school then warned Tobin that if she should speak about this investigation in public, they may publish the report in its entirety, which contained personal information about Tobin. Here again, a student’s right to speak her opinions was hampered when Stock contacted the student’s employer and university administration in order to silence her.

After she began reporting on cases of harassment by Stock, UC Berkeley Associate Professor Grace Lavery was also made aware of Sussex student Talia Fogelman, who registered a complaint with her Equity Officer about a hostile work environment created by Stock. The officer told her the complaint was inappropriate and that Stock had been moved out of her student-facing role and therefore would not be impacting the students’ work environment, which was untrue.

Christa Peterson, an American philosophy PhD student, became frustrated with claims that those criticizing Stock are not aware of her actual beliefs or actions. She fell victim to a classic trap in these circles: if you do not provide enough evidence, you are accused of not knowing what you are talking about. If you provide too much evidence, you are accused of being obsessed. She was the target of a remarkable number of attacks from powerful members of her field such as Kathleen Stock herself, who launched insults about Peterson’s mental health rather than engage with her substantive critiques (available both on Twitter and elsewhere).

Image from Twitter @Dockstockk

Besides suggesting that Peterson was mentally ill and obsessed, Stock repeatedly claimed on Twitter and on her website that her critiques were “defamatory,” a beloved claim of hers, using legal intimidation to attempt to silence Peterson. 

Most recently, Stock was able to get the BBC to publish a statement which some news outlets labeled a “correction,” accusing Sussex student Amelia Jones of making false accusations against her and sharing Jones’ full name, photo and video in the context of calling her a liar, though nothing Jones said was factually inaccurate. As the UK media (and, increasingly the US media as well) seem unwilling to verify Stock’s claims before publishing them, her negative opinions of students who critique her easily become a matter of public record and the student’s reputation is tarnished before they can even begin their careers. This is a power that Stock should be careful with, and she has regularly demonstrated that she would rather wield it with abandon.

After spending considerable time and effort searching, I found no concrete evidence of Stock receiving threats or harassment from students. But there is documented evidence that Stock has, on more than one occasion, reached out to the employers of students who have criticized her and demanded professional censure in retaliation, threatened them with frivolous claims of harassment and defamation when their speech should have been protected, and dragged their names through the mud. It is a common features in these episodes for those accused of harassment and bullying to leave their posts—if they do so at all—while proclaiming that they are actually the victims of the very behaviors they have perpetuated.

Is Stock a victim of a stifling orthodoxy?

There is a near constant refrain among the culture war content-generation pundits that academia is being stifled by an orthodoxy that forbids dissent on certain topics. Incidentally, the topics these pundits consider stifled are usually settled matters in the fields that cover them (e.g., Is it scientifically coherent to assert that some racial groups are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than others? No. Is it psychologically reasonable to argue that sex assigned at birth should override gender identity? Also no). To continue to insist that these questions are not resolved is to pull back the reins on the pursuit of knowledge. To insist that the established conclusions be overturned on no evidence, discover that those who specialize in that area do not agree, and suggest that this represents a “taboo,” as Stock has done, is arguably dishonest.

Another, more accurate word for how these discussions are managed might be “norm.” Norms in academic disciplines help us socialize one another into the most effective ways of formulating and investigating questions, as developed over time by previous scholars. One such norm is the scientific method. When one changes research focus, the first thing one must do is familiarize oneself with the existing work in the new topic area. It is by no means required that one conform precisely to the norms of the new field, but when Stock moved from philosophy of fiction into gender and politics, she completely disregarded the work that endeavors to answer questions relevant to her interests.

Pedagogical norms are also relevant to Stock’s case. These include norms about civility and respect for the humanity of one’s students and colleagues. These norms are not in conflict with policies regarding academic freedom in the UK, which only protect educators “within the law” to question and test received wisdom and to “put forward” (which does not mean endorse) controversial opinions. These norms also do not protect educators from criticism or protest, only from losing their jobs. As with all principles regarding freedom of expression, these protections do not cover discriminatory speech. Norms guiding how to do one’s job effectively and responsibly are not a stifling orthodoxy, they are a natural result of living in a society.

Perhaps the most compelling argument that Sussex University is not captured by a stifling pro-trans orthodoxy is that the administration has opted to ignore the accusations that Stock’s transphobic actions constitute discrimination, issuing no public statements on the issue for years until this month, when Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell made statement unequivocally supportive statement of Stock on BBC Radio and then sent an email to the same effect to every student at the university. This email misrepresents the protections afforded Stock to hold philosophical beliefs extend to her actions (campaigning and testifying against the rights of trans people), and threatens to take action against students who refuse to tolerate said actions. After her resignation, Tickell put out yet another statement supporting Stock and refusing to acknowledge the complaints of the student protesters. These are not the words of a school administration being stifled by student opinions. The government similarly has praised Stock for her statements about free speech (these statements were about being free to express gender critical beliefs specifically), making her an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to higher education. She has been glowingly profiled in a deluge of news articles and op-eds. This is not a person who is being targeted or silenced by anyone with any measurable power.

Are Stock’s claims “vanilla”? 

Stock’s tendency throughout all of her public writing and speaking to refer to trans women as “biological males” reflects her deep commitment to withholding respect for those individuals. It has become clear in the last few years that there is a pervasive belief among those who call themselves “gender critical” that it is not transphobic at all to refer to trans women as male and trans men as female. Indeed, after a recent BBC article prompted objections from readers, gender critical activist Jane Clare Jones annotated her disagreements with an open letter to the BBC and posted them on her account. One of her most frequent objections took place when the letter expressed disagreement with the BBC’s tendency to suggest that trans women are not women, to which Jones replies, “They’re not. Women are female.” 

Image from Twitter @janeclarejones

Jones’s annotations were popular amongst the gender critical users who follow her, suggesting that there is an attitude that this view, which Stock shares, is not actually discriminatory because it is true. Mental health research has been clear on this issue for quite some time now: all of the major national and international psychological and medical organizations agree that it is not only discriminatory, it is measurably dangerous for trans and gender non-conforming individuals to be deprived of acceptance for their gender identities (e.g., the World Health Organization, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others). This is not a question of simple disagreement; for some people, social acceptance of their gender identity is a matter of life and death.

Stock’s reactions to challenges to her reasoning are also a cause of concern for those hoping to ensure a constructive and rigorous academic environment. When it was suggested that she should become more familiar with the extant literature on gender, she mocked her critic. It is not even that she believes that she actually is familiar with it: she explicitly declares that it is laughable that she should be, writing, “I cannot for the life of me see how this worry [that trans women have ‘male energy’] could satisfactorily be neutralised by acquaintance with this literature”. Her ignorance on the subject is evident throughout her public statements, for example when she claimed that trans lesbians were not describing themselves as such until ten years ago (they were), or when she suggested that there will be negative social implications to gender-inclusive language when referring to people who can get pregnant (Stock fails to describe these implications). Her refusal to engage honestly with how gender works extends to her ostensible area of expertise, philosophy and cognition. To pretend that the empirical findings of cognitive science, that gender identity is the result of interaction of a person’s self-concept with their social world, is “discredited Cartesianism ghost-in-the-machine stuff” is to demonstrate one’s lack of fitness to participate in, let alone teach, philosophy of gender. Similarly, her tendency to rely on unsubstantiated beliefs about stereotypes suggests that academic rigor is not a priority, nor is restricting herself to “vanilla” claims. 

Similarly un-vanilla is the language she reserves for trans people, nonbinary people, and those who disagree with her. She has called trans lesbians the “dress-wearing equivalents” to incels. She accused a trans athlete of having a “desire to dominate females.” When Oseroff said she makes philosophy unsafe for trans students at her school, she tweeted, “oh do fuck off, you complete and utter dickhead.” When a linguist suggested that she should not call people morons and dickheads for disagreeing with her, she responded, “Fuck off you dickhead moron xxxx”.

Perhaps most chilling of all, Stock has managed to insert her beliefs about trans rights into political and legal proceedings. She added her name to the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, the credo of the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, an organization that campaigns to undo nearly all aspects of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004. In their written evidence submitted to UK Parliament, the WHRC states: “The Convention calls for the ‘elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women’ (Article 5). We consider that the practice of transgenderism clearly falls under this article because it is based on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Despite supporting this organization, Stock claimed that her recent book contains arguments for retaining the Gender Recognition Act, though a close reading reveals that it does not. In fact, she provided expert testimony before the House of Commons that the Gender Recognition Act prevents people from being protected from “male patterns of violence and male patterns of sexism” and that trans women should no longer be granted access to places “where women are undressing, sleeping, in prison, in a hostel or in a refuge” if they have not had surgery. She provided expert testimony that workplace discrimination against trans employees should be legal. She has argued that there are parties preventing research from being published that might contain results which are not politically expedient for trans rights organizations, and she has had this claim taken on board by a judge in the High Court of Justice. This is a conspiracy theory, for which she has used her credentials as an academic to lend legitimacy, and which is now part of UK legal documentation. She has also argued before a judge to prevent transphobic hate incidents from being treated similarly to racist hate incidents because, in her opinion, transphobic statements and misgendering should be interpreted as “simple descriptions of observable facts.” As philosopher Christa Peterson points out, many racist statements are also frequently justified by those who say them as observable fact, rendering her argument ignorant at best. Using her academic credentials to convince a government body to ignore transphobic hate speech because, in her opinion, it is true, is not “vanilla.” 

The behavior and language Stock has displayed certainly qualify as transphobic, contrary to the claim that her credentials (lesbian, feminist, OBE) should preclude that assessment. They are also decidedly not “vanilla.”

Gender critical academics: speaking out?

The next tweet in The Economist’s thread widens the lens not only to all gender critical academics, but to anyone who feels that their beliefs are unwelcome.

Image from Twitter @TheEconomist

In my work analyzing the language used in defense of academics who cry “cancel culture,” I have found that they tend to adopt the posture of a whistleblower. This tweet about academics who “speak out” precisely mirrors this finding. A whistleblower is typically someone who discovers malfeasance on the part of a powerful organization such as a government office or a company, then exposes this malfeasance at great personal risk. It is considered a heroic act, a David-vs-Goliath story. It represents the precise opposite of the true state of affairs, in which professors, with the full support of their institutions and the media, insult and sometimes even defame the students over whom they have significant power. The discursive construction of their situation as though they are in danger or under siege tends to recruit metaphors of authoritarian regimes both historical and fictional, barbaric hordes, and biblical armies to give the sense that the scholars being criticized are actually victims who need rescuing. In the experience of those accused of perpetuating cancel culture, this tends to result in fans of the academic engaging in online harassment campaigns over social media and email.

To see The Economist uncritically repeating these rhetorical moves is concerning for those of us who have been on the receiving end of such harassment, both for ourselves and for those currently raising the alarm about figures such as Kathleen Stock and Peter Boghossian.

*Note this article originally included a quotation from Sara Ahmed, mistakenly out of context. It has been removed.