December 16, 2022 - 7:30am

A cancelled film screening on Wednesday night at the University of Edinburgh is another sign that the institution has become increasingly hostile to open discussion on campus. The Edinburgh branch of Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) had organised a showing of Adult Human Female, a documentary released this year which challenges gender identity politics, but saw their event picketed by student activists. Earlier this week the trade union UCU Edinburgh demanded the showing not take place in a University building, describing the event as “a clear attack on trans people’s identities”.

Around 10 protesters reportedly occupied the lecture theatre in Edinburgh’s George Square where the screening was originally planned to take place, before another group occupied the proposed alternative location on campus. Many of the agitating students wore protective Covid masks to conceal their identities as they chanted and harangued attendees. One person identified was Robyn Woof, the University Students’ Association’s Trans and Non-Binary Officer, who was filmed at the protest and who labelled the organisers “bigots”.

The event was then called off due to safety concerns. SNP MP and Edinburgh alumna Joanna Cherry condemned the decision, referring to an “authoritarian neo-fascist climate” at the University and in Scotland more broadly.

The thwarted viewing is only the latest incident to drag the University of Edinburgh into the news over free speech issues. In October a student group disrupted a meeting for Edinburgh’s [Pro-] Life Society, with one shouting through a megaphone, “Stop this talk right now […] We are not letting you spread your harmful rhetoric against people with uteruses” as attendees listened politely. 

On the formation of Edinburgh AFAF earlier this year, a union official accused the group of being a “haven for racists, transphobes and other assorted bigots”. In 2021 Neil Thin, a founder member of the branch which seeks to protect academic freedom at the University, endured a two-month investigation (that eventually cleared him) into spurious, and mostly anonymous, claims that he was a “rape apologist” and “the epitome of white supremacy”. He had previously questioned a campus event titled ‘Resisting Whiteness’, which had segregated audience members by race and which banned white spectators from asking questions.

The authoritarian impulse prevailing among Edinburgh’s students and staff was even enough to leave Ann Henderson, a labour campaigner who was the Rector of the University between 2018-21, fearing for her safety. For the crime of retweeting the link to an event titled ‘How will changes to the Gender Recognition Act affect women’s rights?’ Henderson was subjected to a smear campaign which lasted practically the entirety of her tenure. She received scant support from Edinburgh’s vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, whose record on freedom of expression is, at best, chequered.

Not only did the University’s senior management forsake their Rector, Henderson was also attacked by the campus newspaper, The Student, which uncritically labelled her ‘transphobic’ in multiple articles. In a neat bit of symmetry, the publication’s editor this week made clear that they would not be covering the Adult Human Female event, and by extension the protests against it, because “we do not believe in platforming the harmful rhetoric that will undoubtedly affect many of our student readership”.

This silencing of gender-critical views is something I witnessed when I served as editor-in-chief at The Student in 2020, too. And this latest example is as saddening as the ones that preceded it. For one of the most highly regarded institutions in the country, these developments should trouble us all.


Rob Lownie is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.

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