Freedom of Speech - A statement by the Chair of the University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group
27 February 2018
The University of Bristol is re-affirming its commitment to freedom of speech and to the rights of all our students and staff to discuss difficult and sensitive topics, and to being a place where all feel safe, welcomed and respected, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or social background.
The University has been made aware of the controversy surrounding a recent meeting in Bristol, organised by the group known as “A Woman’s Place” and chaired by one of our students. The stated purpose of the event was to discuss the implications of proposed changes in the law which would mean a person’s gender could be determined by self-identification alone, and concerns about what this might mean for single sex environments such as social and sports facilities, hospital wards, changing rooms and toilets.
An open letter was posted on social media calling for the event to be banned, on the basis that the discussion would be founded on hatred and distrust of transgender people. Some 200 people are believed to have signed up to this letter, including some of our students and staff. There were many related comments on social media, some of these describing the event - and anyone involved in its organisation - as by definition transphobic with some using abusive and intimidating language. We understand that in the end the event took place without incident.
While this event was not affiliated with or hosted by the University, it presents an opportune time to affirm our commitment to freedom of speech and to the rights of all our students and staff to discuss difficult and sensitive topics. Universities are places of research and learning, where debate and dissent are not only permitted but expected, and where controversial and even offensive ideas may be put forward, listened to and challenged. Intellectual freedom is fundamental to our mission and values. Our freedom of speech policy underlines the vital importance of our right, as members of a free and democratic society, to speak openly without fear of censorship or limitation, provided that this right is exercised responsibly, within the law, and with respect for others who may have differing views. We do not condone attempts to silence discussion before it has even taken place or the use of stereotyping or threatening language to prevent debate.
We also take this opportunity to affirm our equally strong commitment to making our University a place where all feel safe, welcomed and respected, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or social background. We believe that calls for this event to be banned were largely founded on the sincere desire to show support and solidarity for transgender people in our society and in our university community. We regret however that this desire has been expressed by some in a manner which may have caused others to fear that their own right to meet and speak freely about matters of concern to them is not protected by the University.
Professor Nishan Canagarajah
Pro-Vice Chancellor Research & Enterprise
Chair of the University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group