Students at Sussex Campaign to Get Philosopher Fired (updated)

An “anonymous, unaffiliated group of queer, trans, and non-binary students” at the University of Sussex is calling for the school to fire philosophy professor Kathleen Stock for her views and activism regarding trans women.

In their “manifesto,” the students say that Stock is one of Britain’s “most prominent transphobes” who “has spent years campaigning for the exclusion of trans people from ‘women’s only spaces’, and against trans and non-binary people’s right to self-identify as any gender.” They write: “Our demand is simple: fire Kathleen Stock. Until then, you’ll see us around.” They have also put up flyers around the campus calling for Stock to be fired and have engaged in demonstrations.

A photo from the antiterfsussex Instagram feed depicting people (whose faces are obscured by smiley-face images) demonstrating against philosophy professor Kathleen Stock.

According to The Guardian,

Adam Tickell, the vice-chancellor at the institution, said: “We are investigating activity on our campus which appears to have been designed to attack Prof Kathleen Stock for exercising her academic freedoms. Disturbingly, this has included pressuring the university to terminate her employment…  Everyone at the university has the right to be free from harassment and intimidation. We cannot and will not tolerate threats to cherished academic freedoms and will take any action necessary to protect the rights of our community.”… a University of Sussex spokesperson said: “We were extremely concerned to see the harassment towards our staff member and took immediate action in response to this, which is continuing”.

Clearly, academic freedom protects Professor Stock from termination on account of her views, and there is no indication that this campaign has any traction with anyone in a position to affect her employment status.

While it is unfortunate that the students seem to lack an appreciation of the value of academic freedom, the students themselves have under UK law a right to freedom of expression, including the right to (unwisely) call for one of their professors to be fired, and to do this in writings, on social media, on flyers, and through in-person demonstrations. They also have the right to publicly condemn her views. It is unclear from reports whether the students have done anything besides this.

(Comments are off on this post because discussions of this topic tend to require a significant amount of moderation and I don’t want to spend the entire day in front of the computer. If you have further information relevant to this story, please email it to me and I will provide updates as needed.)

UPDATE 1 (10/12/21): A number of UK philosophers have signed onto an open letter to officials at the University of Sussex. The authors are writing

to express our solidarity with, and support of, the University of Sussex in its defence of academic freedom in light of the recent harassment campaign targeting your colleague, Professor Kathleen Stock, for her academic work and public interventions in relation to questions surrounding the legal recognition of sex and gender identity. While not all of us agree with Professor Stock’s views, we are convinced of the importance of making space within Universities and within public life for respectful debate and discussion, particularly in relation to pressing issues of public policy.

UPDATE 2 (10/12/21): The University of Sussex University and College Union (UCU) has issued a statement in light of recent events, in which they ask

University leadership to uphold the institution’s stated values by ensuring that the dignity and respect of trans and nonbinary staff and students, and their allies, are enshrined at the core of the University’s culture

while also objecting to the protestors’ demand that Stock be fired, saying:

We do not endorse the call for any worker to be summarily sacked and we oppose all forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation of staff and students.

UPDATE 3 (10/14/21): Another open letter, one that objects to the protestors’ calls to fire Stock, objects to characterizations of her views as anti-trans, and calls for an investigation of and disciplinary action against the protestors, is here.

Added 10/14/21: a reader has objected to my characterization of the signatories as calling for “an investigation of and disciplinary action against the protestors.” Rather, this reader said, the signatories are calling for an investigation of and disciplinary action against those involved in the “intimidation” of Professor Stock. My response is as follows: I looked at various news reports and social media posts that refer to the intimidation and harassment of Stock, but I could find no examples of any particular such acts. The only particular acts mentioned were the protests themselves and the posting of signs calling for her to be fired. Even the open letter refers only to posters and stickers on campus. So either the signatories believe that the protestors who demonstrated and put up signs should be investigated and disciplined, or they believe, seemingly without any examples, that there have been some other acts of intimidation, the perpetrators of which ought to be investigated and disciplined. Indeed, the absence in all of the reporting on this story of any specific examples beyond the protests and signs is striking once you start looking for them. This is not to deny that words spoken during a protest or written on signs may be intimidating or harassing (though it is not clear that in this case these words included anything beyond criticisms of Stock and calls for her to be fired); nor is to deny that this experience must be very unpleasant for Professor Stock; nor is it to agree with the protestors that Stock be fired. I suppose it is to ask: if not the protestors for demonstrating and putting up signs, then whom are the signatories asking be investigated and disciplined, and for what?