Lisa Keogh Square

Scottish universities must protect free speech on campus

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AT THE Free Speech Union we are in the business of facilitating free and open debate and pushing back against the insidious and now widespread cancellation of people’s voices across the full range of political views. Although we’ve overseen several high-profile cases, the vast majority of the work we do is on behalf of ‘ordinary’ people.

Lisa Keogh (pictured) and her battle with Abertay University is a good example of this.

If you’ve missed the story to date, Lisa is a 29-year-old mature law student at the university and the mother of two young boys.

In what she knew would be her final term of study, one of her core modules was a series of seminars on gender, sexuality and the law. Unlike many of her modules over the last four years, which covered black letter law, this one was designed to open up debate and discussion on contentious issues.

The first class was designed to cover gender identity and how this related to women’s experiences. In that seminar, Lisa was asked for her view on what constituted a woman and she defined it as someone born with female reproductive organs and the ability to menstruate. She also said she didn’t think women should have to compete against biological males in mixed martial arts – even if they self-identified as women – because men are stronger than women. She did not think of these views as particularly controversial and certainly didn’t intend to offend or harass anyone. As far as she was concerned, they were just common sense. But as we know in the Free Speech Union, such views are verboten on many university campuses.

Her comments clearly annoyed some of her fellow students – for the most part, younger and more ‘woke’ than her – who accused her of ‘transphobia’. She made clear that she had no truck with transphobes, and backed up her opinion with evidence in the discussion that followed – in normal times a perfectly reasonable approach for a law student participating in a law seminar of this type.

Regrettably, at least one of Lisa’s classmates complained about her to the university authorities, describing her gender critical comments as ‘hate speech’, and on 16 April Lisa was formally notified that she was under investigation.

As the facts came out, it became clear that it was her views about the biology of women that had ‘triggered’ the complainants. In the past few days, the university has claimed that it wasn’t what she said in the seminar that was complained about, but the manner in which she said it. But during the first investigation hearing, where Lisa was cross-examined, it was the way in which she’d defined women and the claims she’d made about female biology that she was questioned about. It was only when Lisa’s case attracted media attention that Abertay became embarrassed and came up with this excuse.

On the evidence we have seen, the allegations against Lisa – that she is a truculent person with unreasonable views – don’t stand up to scrutiny. We believe the reason she is being investigated is because she dissents from trans orthodoxy on the subjects of sex and gender – exactly the same thing that many of our members have been investigated for. Challenge this dogma on campus and defend women’s rights and you will be accused of ‘hate speech’. That’s even true in some workplaces, as Maya Forstater discovered when she lost her job at an international think tank after she said she didn’t think transwomen are women. Joanna Cherry QC MP, who has been branded a ‘transphobe’ for expressing similar views herself, correctly described Abertay’s investigation of Lisa as “farcical” in the House of Commons.

I hope the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill unveiled In the Queen’s Speech will help make such campus witch-hunts less likely – at least in England. It will not just strengthen protections of free speech, but create various mechanisms so the existing laws obliging universities to uphold free speech on their campuses can be enforced. Take note: the need for stronger protections for free speech is not, as some would argue, so people can use the language of violence and hatred without censure, but to preserve England’s universities as world leading bastions of education, debate, rational thought, discourse and, ultimately, progress. Without free debate and the ability to challenge any set of beliefs, however fashionable, this cannot happen.

Unfortunately, no such legislation is currently being proposed for Scotland.

In the twin eras of Enlightenment and Industrialisation, Aberdeen, Glasgow and particularly Edinburgh were world beating centres of human progress, allowing civilisation to make giant leaps in discovery at a pace never seen before and unlikely to be repeated.

This progress could not have happened in the absence of the Scottish Enlightenment, which made it possible for free thinkers like David Hume to challenge age-old religious beliefs.

Abertay University’s prolonged investigation of Lisa Keogh sends a chilling message to other students who are interested in lively discussion and debate. It lets students know that certain viewpoints are off-limits. If you don’t think biological men should be admitted to women’s safe spaces, you’d best keep that opinion to yourself because if you say it out loud you could be put through a gruelling investigation. If we want to preserve our own universities’ world class reputations we must do something about this censorious, Maoist climate.

Free speech is in peril in these islands, and as I write Scotland seems to be going in the opposite direction of England. The UK Government has recognised there is a problem across education south of the border, and the case of Lisa Keogh shows Scotland is in an equally perilous position. The difference is Boris Johnson is doing something about it while Nicola Sturgeon is sitting on her hands.

Abertay University had the opportunity this week to throw out the case against Lisa, in what would have been a triumph for common sense.

Instead, it has opted to escalate the matter to a formal disciplinary board, which is scheduled for next week and at which Lisa has been summoned to appear. A more intimidating approach from Abertay could barely have been thought of. The sanctions at that formal hearing range from a written or oral reprimand to a recommendation she be expelled from her course, an act which would nullify four years of hard graft.

Lisa is from an ordinary Scottish background – she’s the first in her family to go to university. Is disciplining her for expressing views shared by the vast majority of her fellow Scots the best way to widen participation in higher education in Scotland? I would say not.

I wonder if Abertay will become known all over the world for expelling a young mother who had the tenacity to suggest a biological woman was someone born with a vagina.

But this is Scotland in 2021 and we are through the Looking-Glass.

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