Melbourne University says frees speech does not override transgender rights

Jun 15, 2021 by

The University of Melbourne is considering a gender affirmation policy that would prohibit public events or speech that could harm transgender people.

Melbourne University vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell has warned staff that their right to academic freedom does not give them licence to write or say things that cause harm to transgender people.

In the draft of a new “gender affirmation policy”, the university is considering prohibiting public speeches or events that it deems an attack on gender diversity. If enacted, the draft would also alter the university’s free speech policy to prevent its academics engaging in public discourse that the university believes has the potential to harm transgender and gender-diverse members of the university community.

Melbourne University vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell says transgender people “confront the daily threat of violence”.
Melbourne University vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell says transgender people “confront the daily threat of violence”.Credit:AFR

The draft policy follows calls by the student union’s queer political action collective last month for the suspension and review of a second-year philosophy subject on feminism over concerns it contains “transphobic rhetoric” in the course materials.

But Associate Professor Holly Lawford-Smith, the Melbourne University philosophy academic who co-ordinates the course, said the draft policy was “terrible [and] an overreach”, and the definition of harm at a university should not include “not having your ideas challenged”.

The draft policy says that: “Where the university determines that an activity or event poses an unacceptable risk of harm to [transgender and gender-diverse] members of the university community, it may determine not to conduct or host the activity or event on those grounds (in accordance with the provisions of the Freedom of Speech Policy).”

Professor Maskell raised the issue in an address to staff on Tuesday evening, acknowledging that there had been “deep disagreements and widely divergent views amongst our community about questions concerning gender identity”.

“There has been a lot of exaggeration or concept creep around what it means to be harmed or to be, quote-unquote, ‘safe’ on campus.”

Associate Professor Holly Lawford-Smith

“This has at times been perceived as a stand-off between the academic freedom of colleagues to pursue particular questions concerning transgender identity, versus the damage and harm that our transgender colleagues experience from those questions being pursued,” Professor Maskell said.

He said all parties should be respected in the debate, noting that “transgender people are first and foremost people”.

“I will start by saying that emotional distress and anguish caused to transgender people by inappropriate words being spoken and written is very real, and it is the responsibility of all of us not to add to this burden,” he said.

“This is heightened, and perhaps made much more understandable, when you learn of the sometimes daily threat of physical violence that transgender people confront.”

University of Melbourne associate professor Holly Lawford-Smith says proposed gender affirmation policy is “an overreach”.
University of Melbourne associate professor Holly Lawford-Smith says proposed gender affirmation policy is “an overreach”.

But Dr Lawford-Smith said: “They don’t define ‘harm’ in the policy and yet a lot depends in that clause on what it would mean to be harmed for that community.

“I guess the worry in terms of what we’ve seen in the last few years is that there has been a lot of exaggeration or concept creep around what it means to be harmed or to be, quote-unquote, ‘safe’ on campus, where that’s started to mean not having your ideas challenged.”

Dr Lawford-Smith attracted controversy when she participated in an event in 2019 against new Victorian laws enabling transgender people to have their birth certificate changed to affirm their gender. The event drew protests from current and former students and an unsuccessful appeal from national organisation Equality Australia to Melbourne University to cancel it.

The student union’s complaint against Dr Lawford-Smith’s course included claims that the subject has reading texts that are “derogatory” to transgender and gender-diverse students, that have been published without a peer review process and which “perpetuate common falsehoods that transgender women are inherently predatory”. A review of the subject is under way.

The union also called for Associate Professor Lawford-Smith to be suspended until she could demonstrate concrete plans to create a safe and respectful environment for transgender and sex worker students and staff.

University of Melbourne Student Union president Jack Buksh said the draft policy change was a welcome if “relatively uncontroversial” development, but said it did not resolve tensions between academic freedom and transgender safety.

“Those kinds of events [the event in 2019] we know can make transgender and gender-diverse students feel really unsafe so it’s good the university has finally stepped up to fill that gap,” Mr Buksh said.

“But we’re still waiting to see how they will address the academic freedom argument with the right of students to feel safe and the transgender community to feel supported.”

A university spokesman said the proposed gender affirmation policy had been in development since the end of 2019 and that all feedback would be considered before finalising the policy and announcing it to staff in the near future.

“One of our core values is that there must be a genuine and deep culture of respect for everyone at our university and of course this includes being completely respectful towards the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community,” the spokesman said.

“This is non-negotiable.”

Source: Melbourne University says frees speech does not override transgender rights

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