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University of Essex apologises for cancelling lecture by professor over her transgender views

A university has apologised for cancelling a lecture by a visiting professor after her views on transgender people were attacked by students and staff.

Open University criminology professor Jo Phoenix was booked to give a lecture entitled ‘Trans rights and justice: complicated contours in contemporary sex, gender and sexualities politics when thinking about issues of justice and punishment’ at the University of Essex in 2019.

It was set to explore tensions around placing transgender women – who were born men – in female prisons in Britain.

But the Centre for Criminology cancelled the event a few hours ahead of it taking place, citing concerns that the ‘open debate and discussion might be obstructed’.  

Vice-chancellor of Essex University Anthony Forster yesterday published the findings of a review into the lecture being cancelled, and issued four separate apologies to Prof Phoenix.

Last week, the Queen’s Speech unveiled a new bill threatening institutions and student unions in England and Wales with fines of £500,000 if they bar controversial guests.

Universities have been dogged in the past few years by ‘no-platforming’ campaigns which saw well-known and highly respected speakers blocked from giving talks over views deemed too ‘controversial’. 

Open University criminology professor Jo Phoenix was set to give a lecture entitled ‘Trans rights and justice: complicated contours in contemporary sex, gender and sexualities politics when thinking about issues of justice and punishment’ at the University of Essex

Students branded Prof Phoenix a ‘transphobe’ on social media after the contents of her talk was revealed in 2019.

A flyer was circulated around campus which featured an image of a gun pointed at the head of a reader and the words ‘shut the f*** up TERF’.

The term stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist.

The academic had successfully given the lecture at the University of Newfoundland in Canada a month earlier to an audience that included transgender scholars without any controversy.

An Essex University staff member had warned Professor Phoenix that some LGBT faculty and students claimed they would not feel safe if the talk went ahead. 

By the afternoon, the university revealed its decision to cancel the talk, claiming disruption from students was inevitable.

But the Centre for Criminology at the University of Essex (pictured) cancelled the event a few hours ahead of it taking place, citing concerns that the 'open debate and discussion might be obstructed'

But the Centre for Criminology at the University of Essex (pictured) cancelled the event a few hours ahead of it taking place, citing concerns that the ‘open debate and discussion might be obstructed’

It also claimed it was unlikely any proper academic discussion could come from it. 

At the time Prof Phoenix said: ‘I was furious – it was very clear to me that those agitating were fundamentally anti-academic because they condemned me and my research without hearing what I had to say.’

Prof Phoenix insists she is not transphobic. 

She said all transgender scholars at the University of Newfoundland ‘liked’ the talk, and claimed ‘there is something unique about what is going on in the UK’. 

In December, Vice-chancellor of Essex University Prof Forster launched a review into what happened.

He yesterday issued a public apology to Prof Phoenix for the ‘distress caused by the cancellation of the Centre For Criminology seminar on Trans Rights, Imprisonment and the Criminal Jusrice system which was to have taken place on December 5, 2019’.

Vice-chancellor of Essex University Anthony Forster (pictured) today published the findings of a review into the lecture being cancelled, and issued four separate apologies to Prof Phoenix

Vice-chancellor of Essex University Anthony Forster (pictured) today published the findings of a review into the lecture being cancelled, and issued four separate apologies to Prof Phoenix

He added: ‘A review has now been concluded which included consideration of the circumstances resulting in and arising from the cancellation of the seminar.

‘After meetings today to consider the report, we will be taking immediate action in relation to all of the recommendations. 

Prof Forster said Prof Phoenix would be invited back to campus to present her seminar.

He said: ‘On behalf of the University I accept and apologise for the fact that we failed to plan adequately for the seminar resulting in the event being cancelled at the last minute because of a risk of disruption.

‘We failed to take immediate action about a flyer that was circulating containing violent and profane imagery which was was targeted at you.

‘We inappropriately asked you to provide a copy of your seminar for vetting and we infringed on your freedom of speech with justification by rescinding the invitation to present a seminar and not to invite you to present a future seminar in the Department of Sociology.’

Responding on Twitter Prof Phoenix said: ‘LONG TIME COMING ESSEX but thank you to the vice chancellor and the exec for undertaking this review and publishing it.

‘It’s findings and recommendations are an important counterbalance to the attacks on gender critical views and gender critical research.

‘I welcome that apology and welcome the approach taken – even if it took eighteen months to complete. 

‘The report is very clear about a number of things: The fact that dis-inviting a speaker is out with current legislative framework and that the university failed to take immediate action regarding a violent and profane flyer that was targeted at me with SHUT THE F**K UP TERF text, a visual of a gun pointed at the reader and a list of examples of my alleged transphobia.

‘That I was inappropriately asked to supply a copy of my seminar presentation for vetting and that they ‘infringed [my] freedom of speech without justification by deciding on 11 December 2019: (a) to rescind the invitation to present a seminar; and (b) not to invite me to present a future seminar in the Department of Sociology

‘Of importance is that Essex is reviewing its policies in light of the review’s critical stance how the Equalities Act 2010 was interpreted and especially those sections that pertain to ‘gender identity’ which is NOT a protected characteristic.

‘As for indirect discrimination, the decision taken in relation to Prof Phoenix may contribute to indirect sex discrimination against women at the University, on the basis that more women than men tend to hold and publicly express)gender critical views.’ 


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