Edinburgh UCU’s hypocrisy about free speech

Yesterday evening, a screening of the film Adult Human Female took place at Edinburgh University, under heavy guard, and despite calls for its cancellation by the Edinburgh branch of the University and College Union (UCUE). The film screening was hosted by the Edinburgh branch of Academics for Academic Freedom (EAFAF). EAFAF are to be congratulated for their determined efforts to achieve a screening: UCUE had already agitated twice (successfully) to stop the screening of Adult Human Female, as well as attempting to ban a book launch by a number of gender critical academics at the university last month. 

Adult Human Female consists primarily of interviews with academics, authors and a number of women who have suffered reprisals for their gender critical views. It discusses concerns such as the conflation of sex and gender in the national census, the abolition of sex-defined women’s spaces, and the sterilisation of gender non-conforming children.  

On 13 November, UCUE sent an email to Professor Cunningham-Burley, University-wide lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, asking her to “reconsider” the permission that the university had granted for the screening of Adult Human Female. CAF has seen a copy of the email, which also expressed UCUE’s “condemnation” of the event and demanded that “this film screening should not appear on the University’s official calendar of events.” 

The UCUE email makes a number of false claims about the film, for instance that “the film’s actors portray trans people as sexual fetishists… and violent militia.” Adult Human Female does discuss sexual fetishes (30.40), but at no point does it portray trans people as fetishists. Nor does it portray trans people as violent or a “militia”. The UCUE email also draws attention to Jo Phoenix’s claim in the film that “The idea that there is a trans identity to begin with, the idea of a gender identity, that is a really contested idea”. Merely saying this, it implies, constitutes grounds to prevent the screening.  

Only three days before sending this email, UCUE had released this statement calling on the Principal of Edinburgh University to:  

Reassure staff and students that the right to education and academic freedom will be protected. 

The statement calls, in particular, for the protection of speech and research that is critical of Israel. Recent threats to the freedom of scholars critical of Israel have included the cancellation of talks and the abuse of government power to quell criticism of Israel. CAF has reported on these events here, and here.  

The most generous account that can be given of the UCUE’s actions is that it is abysmally confused. A less charitable explanation is that it has no real interest in academic freedom, but cynically uses the concept to promote causes it agrees with. UCUE’s opposition to the screening of Adult Human Female comes amidst a wider UCU campaign for “academic freedom”. It remains to be seen whether the wider UCU will act consistently with its principles, or whether it will behave as UCUE has done.