The group's misrepresentation of the law is a cautionary tale
This week the University of Essex published an open apology to two female professors who it had no-platformed in December 2019 due to their gender-critical views. The university also published a full report replete with recommendations and future actions. These are interesting for two reasons.
Firstly, the findings are damning of Stonewall, who they blame for undermining the “university’s obligations to uphold freedom of expression” and giving an “incorrect summary of the law” and “misleading policies”. In short, Stonewall annually reviews the University’s ‘Supporting Trans and Non Binary Staff’ policy, and it seems that they advised the university that gender-critical academics can legitimately be excluded from the institution. However, this was an “erroneous understanding of equality law” — gender identity is not a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010 — and the examples of harassment suggested in the policy were not actually unlawful.
One of the university’s subsequent recommendations is that “the University should give careful and thorough consideration to the relative benefits and disbenefits of its relationship with Stonewall” and should “devise a strategy for countering the drawbacks and potential illegalities.” Stonewall’s flagrant misrepresentation of the law is a cautionary tale for those who champion them, and will be another blow to the charity, whose reputation is in free fall.
Less than two weeks ago an open letter was sent to the EHRC calling for a “review of the role of Stonewall in public life and its influence and control over the organisational HR policies and wider business of public institutions”. For many, these findings are confirmation of Stonewall’s toxicity. Dennis Noel Kavanagh, legal commentator at Lesbian and Gay News, called Stonewall “a bloated tyrant drunk on power, incautious with language and reckless,” and said that the findings are proof that they have “degenerated and metastasised the mainstream gay movement into a virulent homophobic and misogynistic juggernaut.”
Secondly, the decision matters because it suggests that the way to ‘cancel’ cancel culture is not through more legislation — as the government is currently proposing — but through precedent. It may have taken eighteen months, but the University of Essex’s decision is a victory for common sense and will hopefully embolden academic leaders to value diversity of thought without the need for blunt statutory tools.
In the ongoing battles over gender identity, this matters. The university could have extended its apology even further — for example, by inviting the speakers back, or clarifying that they have taken action with the students who distributed a violent and threatening flyer against one of the professors before the event — but it is a step in the right direction, and hopefully more universities will follow Essex’s lead.