Currently there are two prominent controversies relating to ‘academic freedom’. One is the case of Kathleen Stock, who has written a book that is critical of the concept of ‘gender identity’. Professor Stock has been the subject of threats and anonymous vilification, and has been disowned by her university’s union. The other is the case of David Miller, who has not just used his teaching position to declare that there is a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, but has accused Jewish students in his university of taking part in it and being the pawns of a malign foreign power.
I think these two cases are rather different. Miller’s embrace of conspiracy theory is odiously racist, but there are lots of objectionable positions that people take in British universities – among them, people who will happily argue for eugenics, racial inferiority, and survival of the fittest. The academic advocates for letting Covid rip have contributed to the deaths of more people than they could have if they’d gone into a lecture theatre firing a sub-machine gun. If Professor Miller had stopped at conspiracy theory, I doubt that much would have happened. The line he crossed was to level an accusation at a group of students within his university who should be “directly targeted”. Miller claims, probably correctly, that this is not unlawful: defamation only becomes unlawful when it relates to identifiable individuals within a group. But academic freedom is not unlimited, any more than any other sort of freedom. It cannot be legitimate to threaten or invite people to attack those who are subject to your authority: that is an abuse of power.
Kathleen Stock’s position is very different. She has been accused of ‘transphobia’ for daring to take a different view from other people. The statement from her local union branch comments that “Public discourses regularly devalue the lives of trans and nonbinary people, and appeals to both employment rights and academic freedom are often instrumentalised.” Maybe so, but that has nothing to do with Kathleen Stock. I have read her book, Material Girls, and I did not see anything there which might suggest that trans people do not have the right to live their own lives in their own way . She writes, on the contrary:
Trans people are trans people. We should get over it. They deserve to be safe, to be visible throughout society without shame or stigma, and to have exactly the life opportunities non-trans people do. Their transness makes no difference to any of this. What trans people don’t deserve, however, is to be publicly represented in philosophical terms that make no sense.
Her main objections are to subjective claims to a gender identity, and from there to men who wish to occupy the same spaces as women. (I think she dismisses the social construction of gender rather too easily, and tends to conflate it with subjective self-identification – but so do her opponents. Law, finance, culture and language are also socially constructed; that doesn’t mean they are subjective. Nor is gender.) There is a discussion to be had, and if we cannot accommodate that discussion in reasoned terms, we will all be the poorer.