To my surprise, my essay from Sunday, “The UK Media Has Seriously Bungled the Kathleen Stock Story,” has achieved what publicists call “mild virality,” becoming in twenty-four hours the most widely read and circulated post I’ve ever published on this platform. It remains too early to see whether the piece will shape the story emerging from Sussex at all––the UK press appears to have dropped the story for now, and the mystifications surrounding the nature and purpose of academic freedom have been in wide circulation for a few years now.
But at the end of Sunday’s essay, I offered a right to reply to either Kathleen Stock or anyone who wishes to speak for her in this space. I am grateful then, to Prof. John Collins of East Anglia University, who wrote to me in that spirit. Prof. Collins is one of the organizers of the “Philosopher’s Letter” of support for Stock that was circulated last week. Our conversation turned on the LGBA’s charitable status, the purpose of the WDSR and the WHRC, and the value of “debate” as a method for managing disagreement. I’m uploading the transcript of our conversation unedited, so I can’t promise that I’m at my most lucid. But it would seem to be a case where editing might be construed as misleading.
I will reiterate here my pledge to include conversations like this with any other colleagues who wish to speak on Prof. Stock’s behalf, or indeed Prof. Stock herself. I truly believe that this issue has been shamefully mishandled in the UK press, and I want very much to produce better conversations and engagements around the topics of trans civil rights and academic freedom, both of which are principle commitments of my work as a scholar.
I’ve posted Prof. Collins’ words in italics, for ease of differentiation. He did not write to me in italics.
Prof. John Collins:
Hi Grace (if I may),
I read your recent piece on Stock. I declare an interest in being one of the organisers of the ‘UK philosophers’ letter’. Be that as it may, I think you are right that the coverage of the situation has been predictably poor. Your piece, however, misses a central component of the situation.
The LGB Alliance is a registered charity in the UK. So, while one may or may not think it is a hate group, there is no legal basis whatsoever to terminate KS’s contract on the basis of her association with the charity. Further, according to the Education Act 1986, universities are legally bound to allow free expression of opinion (within certain parameters) beyond issues of academic freedom. I cannot conceive of any legal argument for the disciplining of someone for being a trustee of a charity – to the contrary, the Act would prima facie rule out any such challenge, especially since GC views are also legally protected. Hence, the calls for KS to be fired are simply harassment, having no legal basis.
As for the issue of the student, UK charities are free to politically campaign for change in legislation. Being a trustee does not entail that one subscribes to all campaigns of the relevant charity. This matters, for from the get go, KS has defended the legal status quo. I know of nowhere where she has so much as entertained a scrapping of the Equality Act protections of trans people or a scrapping of the current GRA.
Thanks, John. I appreciate your response. If I may offer a couple of quick thoughts of my own:
I’m not sure what would be the grounds for concluding that charity status and the more informal designation of “hate group” would be in contradiction with each other. The Charities Commission has made a controversial decision in respect of the LGBA, but I don’t see any reason why their decision should prevent Sussex University, still less its students, from reaching a different conclusion. I agree entirely with your assessment of the Education Act, and support Stock’s right (and those of the Sussex students) to speak freely on this issue. As far as I know, the Education Act does not offer special protections for memberships of “charities.”
As I argued in my essay, Stock’s clear defense of the GRA is contradicted by her signature to the WDSR, which she then mischaracterized in her statement to the BBC. If she believes, contrary to an otherwise universal consensus which includes the Declaration’s authors, that the Declaration would not entail the scrapping of the GRA, she owes the Sussex community some explanation of how she has reached that conclusion. If she signed it in error, or has changed her mind, she should withdraw her signature. As things stand, students at Sussex are arguing that, when it comes to Stock’s position, “actions speak louder than words,” and that her signature on the WDSR should be given more weight than her statements of support for the GRA. I don’t agree with that––I think Stock really does support keeping the GRA, as she claims.* But one would have to admit that the students have a right to be concerned on that front.
I think there may have been some misunderstanding regarding “the student”––I assume you mean Amelia Jones. Stock’s claims about Amelia were made from her own Twitter account, not from the LGBA’s.
I appreciate your engagement. Would you like me to post this exchange on my newsletter––I am very keen to publish contrasting views, not least because I’m sure there are aspects of this that I’ve missed.
* I believed this yesterday when I sent this email to Prof. Collins. Having revisited Material Girls with Christa Peterson, I no longer believe it. It now looks to me like Prof. Stock’s profession of support for the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) is a tactical move based on the hypothetical notion that it could be reduced in force until it places no obligation upon anyone to “recognize” the gender of trans people––a functional, if not technical, repeal of the Act itself.
Thanks for the gracious (excuse the pun) response. Just a few points:
1. You are right that the Education Act does not make special provision for charities, although I’d need to speak to an expert to be sure. My point, however, is that since the act does make special provision for free speech, not merely academic freedom, and that GC views are legally protected (i.e., they don’t constitute hate speech), I can’t see what possible legal basis the university could have to discipline Stock. I mean, sure, they could try, but the law looks to be squarely behind Stock, regardless of any moral qualms people might have. It is in the sense that I think the campaign is harassment – there is just no legal basis for it.
2. Yes, I had in mind Amelia Jones. I am not on Twitter – I know, bizarre – so really don’t keep up with the ins and outs.
3. I think the WDSR is opaque. I take KS’s stance on this to be that she has continuously, in print and speech, defended the legal status quo. I do agree that the legal status quo is not commended by the WDSR. Suppose, though, that KS were to clarify the situation by saying, ‘Well, I support the legal status quo, and while the WDSR does not, or leaves it opaque, I endorse its broad aims’. Something like that. Would that calm everyone? I doubt it. As before, I really can’t see the WDSR as counting as hate speech, although it would be interesting if someone were to mount a challenge in that direction.
4. It is not for me to offer advice, and the US and UK contexts are distinct, both culturally and legally. I think, however, that the trans community has been ill-served by the ‘no debate’ position and the quickness with which people are accused of prejudice might silence people, but does not root out the prejudice that no doubt lurks in the minds of many. One might think, ‘Well, if it works, fine’. Unfortunately, it is not working out that well. There are some bad actors, but not everyone is. Politics is the hardest thing in the world, so I’m not particularly blaming people, but there has to be different gears.
5. I appreciate your openness, more of which is needed on both sides, as it were. What is the newsletter?
Thanks again for your response. I’ll offer some thoughts addressing each.
1. Like “hate group,” “hate speech” isn’t an official designation, except (in UK law) under the general rubric of incitement. So it is for students and workers to decide whether they think that Kathleen Stock’s public remarks on this topic––as distinct from her research into it––constitute hatred. We may come to different conclusions on that, but it is beyond doubt that there is a case for her to answer, and it has nothing to do with academic freedom.
3. I can’t really see what is “opaque” about a Declaration whose primary purpose is to demand the global abolition of “gender recognition acts” like the GRA. The Declaration was written for that sole purpose, a fact that has been affirmed again and again by its authors. So I can’t see what “broad aims” beyond that purpose that Stock could affirm. I don’t know why she signed it, but she might begin by talking openly about how she first encountered the document, how she decided to sign it, whether she discussed it with her allies, etc. I obviously can’t speak for anyone else at Sussex, but I’m genuinely puzzled as to why she signed a manifesto that so obviously and flatly contradicts her stated political position.
4. I hope you can tell that I’m a debater by inclination myself! Back in the olden days (2019!) I had a few conversations with Kathleen Stock, even, and she stood up for me when Graham Linehan accused me of “grooming” students. But of course not every debate is worth having, nor every debater worth engaging, and my sense is that over the last couple of years Stock and her allies have become committed both to more reactionary measures and underhanded political tactics like those directed against Amelia. I’m interested in talking about what “sex” is, whether it changes over time, and how it shapes our understanding of sexual pleasure and desire. I’m not interested in having conversations about whether I am a pedophile, rapist, or sexual predator; or whether trans women are mostly “abusive males.” I’m not sure “no debate” is the answer, either, but I’m very confident that “women won’t wheesht” isn’t.
5. Thanks! It’s just the newsletter on which I published the initial Stock essay, grace.substack.com. I’m proposing to put this correspondence up, unedited. Let me know if that works!
1. Well, anyone can make any legal challenge they like. My point is merely that I can’t conceive of its basis, given the factors I mentioned. As you say, there must be some incitement and intention, not merely perception, in UK law. If the protesters had spoken to a lawyer beforehand and prepared a case, then that would change things. So, I don’t see that KS has any case to answer.
3. People sign all kinds of things. The declaration is international, and different countries have different laws. The opacity, although I shall have to reread it, is over its application to the specific case of the UK. I agree that KS need not have signed it, given her ‘official’ position, but, as I said, if she rowed back on the declaration, I hardly think her troubles would be over, which suggests, along with my first point, that the campaign is vexatious.
4. To be sure, not everyone needs to be listened to or debated, but neither should they be fired. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether KS is a bad actor. I see no reason to think so, but I stand to be corrected. My general point, though, was intended to be friendly. In the UK, Stonewall is coming off the rails somewhat, and this is not because of any right-wing campaign, but because it has made a series of strategic and tactical errors.
5. Sure, publish.
Thanks, John! I’ll just offer some quick thoughts, and then post this with gratitude to you for your openness:
1. I’m not a lawyer either. But I think I’ve amply demonstrated, (1) that LGBA is a hate group, despite charity registration; (2) that Stock’s own public statements are consistent with the Blanchard position, which I think is self-evidently hateful; (3) that students have a right to protest, and even demand the sacking of, faculty, on the basis of our participation in public politics; (4) that whatever the merits of students’ case for Stock’s termination before last week, it became much stronger when Stock libeled Amelia Jones. So yes, in my view Sussex should absolutely come down like a ton of bricks for that reason alone, and those in the profession who claim to speak on behalf of academic freedom should loudly proclaim it doesn’t protect faculty libeling students.
2. I’m just always impressed when someone isn’t on Twitter! I’m an addict, I’m afraid…
3. If Stock walked back her support for the WDSR, stepped down from the LGBA, and issued a public apology to Amelia Jones for lying about her, I for one would publicly change my position. I doubt I’d be alone. I haven’t seen any students complaining about the substance of Material Girls, for example, as Prof. Stock herself has noted.
4. Probably not the best week to claim that there isn’t a campaign against Stonewall, since there has very obviously been one in the last few days? But I’ll remind you that the formation of the LGBA was prompted by exactly this complaint among a minority of senior admin at Stonewall: the organization should, they argued, have allowed for a plurality of positions on trans civil rights. That demand led those departing administrators to form a hate group. At some point, people need to take responsibility for their own views, and stop claiming merely that some bigger, badder force—cancel culture, Stonewall, kids-these-days, etc.—is preventing them from doing so. In other words, if LGBA is indeed representative of the views that the departing Stonewall administrators held, we can only be grateful that they were not indulged by the wider organization. And those with security of employment—like you, me, and Prof. Stock—are especially obliged not to pretend that controversy is the same as cancellation.
5. Thanks. I’m also happy for you to have the last word—I feel like I’ve said everything I need to here, so if you have any further thoughts just let me know and I’ll amend the transcript.
best wishes, and thanks again John,
UPDATE 10/20: I offered John the last word, and he wrote to have it. Here he is:
Since you have kindly offered me the last word, I’ll try not to abuse it. As before, just a few thoughts:
1. ‘Hate’ is ambiguous between its legal meaning and the normal meaning. The problem with calling LGBA a hate group or Blanshardism (as it were) as hate speech is that it is factually inaccurate, if one means it legally. If one means it extra-legally, then it is an academic matter, which shouldn’t involve the targeting of individuals. For instance, the students might be advised to protest the UK Charity Commission rather than Stock. So, while the students and others are free to call Stock hateful and dangerous, there is not the semblance of a legal basis to these charges, let alone for her being fired, and the university is legally obliged to protect free speech, not just academic freedom. One may support the students for extra-legal reasons, but that doesn’t make their actions any less vexatious.
2. Where we do agree, I think, is that the students should be free to protest without fear or sanction. I am a free-speech absolutist, so support the students independent of anything they say. As far as I can tell, none of them have been threatening, even if others have been. It is up to the university to find some resolution that allows for protest and for KS to work as normal.
3. I didn’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a campaign against Stonewall, only that it has made strategic errors independent of any such campaign. The finding of the report concerning Essex University was that Stonewall interprets the law as it thinks it should be, not as it is. I am afraid this reflects a general feature of a good deal of the trans rights movement, at least in the UK. It is perfectly acceptable for a charity to campaign for legal changes, but it is not acceptable for a chairity to give advise at odds with the law, such as with respect to what constitutes hate speech.
I’ll leave it there.
I forgot to address two further matters:
KS cannot reasonably apologise, for she has done nothing wrong, either legally or by the rules of the university; to the contrary, it is the legal duty of the university to support any student or staff member in their exercise of free speech, even if others disagree, which includes being a member of the LGBA and having GC views, which are legally protected as not hate speech. People shouldn’t seek others to humiliate themselves.
As for the libel, well, that is a legal matter. If the student thinks she was libelled, then she is free to seek legal redress. It is not for the university or the students to presume the outcome.
OK, that is all.