Universities and the Stifling of Free Speech

“At no point, have I ever regarded defining a woman as someone who has a vagina as a contentious idea.”

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph on 21/06/2021

I would never have regarded defining a woman as someone who has a vagina and the capacity to reproduce nor stating men have a genetic disposition to be physically stronger than women as particularly contentious ideas. No so apparently as Abertay University student Lisa Keogh discovered when she stepped outside the institutional orthodoxy in the brave new world where absolute truth is contestable. Last week, she left disciplinary proceedings exonerated and will graduate with a degree in Law.

The University contests the idea this was about free speech but Lisa disagrees and last week we met to discuss the situation and outcome. From the outset, Lisa, 29, says she participated in a series of online lectures between December 2020 and March 2021 in a final module for her degree on ‘Gender, Feminism and the Law’. She has spent four years at Abertay and the final module covered several subjects including abortion, surrogacy, pornography, rape and rough sex.

Lisa said: “In one lecture, we discussed transgender rights, the vital role of equality in the legal system and I added we cannot always expect equal outcomes.” In her interactions with fellow students, she responded when asked what constitutes a woman and stated, in her experience as a former mechanic working in a predominantly male workforce, that men are genetically stronger than women. Lisa said: “There were times I needed to ask the blokes to do stuff for me and they did.”

On 16 April, Abertay University sent an E-Mail to Lisa stating: “The University has received an allegation that you have made inappropriate comments during class discussions which could be construed as discriminatory.” However, a statement issued by Abertay on its Twitter account on 9 June, said: “Lisa Keogh was not subject to disciplinary action for expressing so-called ‘unacceptable opinions’ about gender identity, or any other topic.” There is a clear conflict between these two statements.

While the University has a responsibility to investigate allegations of inappropriate behaviour as stated in the Student Code of Conduct, the first line of the E-Mail sent to Miss Keogh refers to “inappropriate comments” which implicates what she said but not how she said it. By publicly stating action was taken not over what she said, when their E-Mail indicates the opposite, they are massaging the truth in their statement, which said they received “a complaint about the behaviour of Ms Keogh”.

By issuing this statement, Abertay University has at least been economical with the truth and at worst besmirched the character of a student by implicating her conduct without a shred of evidence when, in reality, she stated an opinion which happens to be endorsed by almost wholesale scientific consensus. And this, from an institution instructing people how to enforce the law. Lisa says: “I am upset about the statement because it could impact on my employability if people believe I am indeed abusive.”

Lisa, who was looking forward to her graduation ceremony but has decided against attending following her experience with the University, said: “I am so glad to be out of that stifling institution.” She added: “I am going to take the summer and enjoy it with my boys. I am keen to pursue opportunities to become a human right’s lawyer, to support children and those who are not able to access justice. I am passionate about ensuring every child has access to the same education and opportunities.”

When asked what she hopes will be the outcome of this situation, Lisa says: “I want universities to be safe places for open and free debate but a framework needs to be put in place around the disciplinary process to protect the wellbeing of students when vexacious and malicious complaints are made about them.” She adds: “Abertay talks about hurting the feelings of others but I have also been hurt by this process yet my emotions don’t appear to matter because I expressed the unorthodox opinion.”

As we drew our meeting to a close, Lisa reminded me that people fought for women’s rights and freedom of expression. While Abertay made the right decision in the end, what this shameful process, and particularly the public statement issued by Abertay University, reveals is that institutions which were once bastions of critical thinking are neither willing to defend truth nor students courageous enough to proclaim it.