Academic Freedom, Material Reality, and the Tolerance of Legally Held Beliefs – EAFAF Successfully Hold Film Screening

Eight security guards, corridors lined with metal barricades, and a police escort – I was not in a civil war zone or visiting a prison, but rather walking the halls of Edinburgh University.

Many years ago, in the very same lecture theatre, I attended a political film screening arranged by an Edinburgh University society. I was there to speak on the panel afterwards (I was actually far too young and not capable of understanding what that would entail at all!). The film screened was Earthlings – an emotive, controversial and arguably divisive film about animal exploitation and suffering. The screening was attended both by those in favour of ending animal exploitation, and by those who did not wish to see an end to animal expenditure & utilisation by humans. The lecture theatre was rammed with people determined to speak their mind on the film we had just watched. A tense, polarised and argumentative debate followed the screening, and aged nineteen without any university experience whatsoever I sat there wide-eyed and very much out of my depth.

I did not think for a moment, in that lecture theatre many years ago, that in just over a decade the practice of debating contentious viewpoints would be entirely lost within academia. Less than a handful of those who disagreed with the narrative of Adult Human Female were in the lecture theatre last night, despite being invited by the event organisers. None entered the discussion afterwards. This, alongside their previous efforts to prevent the event from going ahead at all, prove worryingly that a culture of no debate and intellectual closed mindedness prevails at Edinburgh University. Bearing in mind the all too recent harassment and persecution of Professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex, and the subjugation of Professor Jo Phoenix at the Open University, one can understand why EAFAF have fought so steadfastly to host this screening three times to champion the principle and integrity of critical thought.

Thankfully, efforts had been made by Edinburgh University and the local police force to enable the screening of Adult Human Female to proceed on its third try. To make our way to the lecture theatre, we passed a screaming crowd being kept at bay by police. I have since the event seen footage of this crowd shouting ‘shame’ at a gay man as he walked inside. We walked down corridors caged with protective fencing and through four doorways, each manned by security guards and also barricaded with riot fencing for further protection. The auditorium itself was lined with about eight security guards, and once the audience were inside another piece of riot fencing was put across the door with both a security guard and an EdUni staff member stationed to protect it. During the screening, one of our party left the auditorium to use the restroom, and she was escorted down the corridors of the building by a kind and friendly security guard for her protection. Approximately twenty police and security officers were stationed outside the building. The film was screened with the lights on to ensure the security professionals had full view of the auditorium at all times. ‘This level of security involvement and police presence would once have been considered unthinkable’, said Dr Shereen Benjamin of EAFAF.

As for the film itself, the filmmakers have generously made the film available online for all to view – you can watch it yourself here and make up your own mind. Interviewees in the film spoke compassionately and plainly about the material reality of biological sex, and how sex based rights are vital in maintaining the quality of life of women and girls. The film’s directors, Deirdre O’Neill and Michael Wayne, stressed that they made this film for the purpose of encouraging conversation and consideration of the issues within. They therefore expressed their dismay that so many trans activists have decried the film as ‘transphobic’ or ‘hate speech’ without watching it or coming forward to debate it. When the head of the UCU Scotland spoke from the audience to encourage gender critical union members to speak up, the filmmakers pointed out they are taking the Edinburgh Branch of UCU to tribunal for its discrimination towards them and its attempts to censor their work. 

There was an emphasis throughout the entire evening that ‘universities are where we should be able examine with curiosity and rigour new ideology,’ as beautifully said by Dr Benjamin. The event was held to promote discussion between opposing parties in the pursuit of common ground and hopefully progress. A panel discussion followed the screening – Dr Benjamin had invited representatives from the other side of the gender debate to sit on the panel, but they refused. Alongside the directors of the film and Dr Benjamin, Susan Smith of For Women Scotland and Lisa MacKenzie of Murray Blackburn Mackenzie received repeated questions from individuals in the auditorium asking how they can prevent being subjected to harassment and victimisation at work for their legally held gender critical beliefs. 

When the event closed, we were shepherded by police and security guards out of a rear entrance of the building, while a baying mob could be seen in the distance. Police escorted attendees as far as Chapel Street to ensure our safety. As we were leaving, a female protester had managed to infiltrate the cordoned off area and stood alone, pulling the collar of her puffer coat across her face whilst shouting at the people leaving. Two other protesters had managed to get past the police escort but once through didn’t know what to do with themselves. One began playing Ace of Spades (the Motörhead classic) from his phone and dancing for the crowd, his hair tied in bunchies and bouncing in the dark. I have to admit I couldn’t help but bop along – Ace of Spades is a great tune. These outliers fortunately lacked the determination of their colleagues held back behind the police fences, and of those who had been seen to physically obstruct women from entering the auditorium, shouted abusive slurs at or spat on women at previous attempts to hold the event.

We made it off the EdUni campus and looked back at the university building before making our way to our car. As I looked behind me, watching the glint of numerous officers in high vis jackets jostling in the distance, I realised I felt more like I was walking away from a natural disaster than a grand epicentre of cultural and intellectual enlightenment. I couldn’t make sense of the experience. Is this what freedom of thought, speech and assembly now looks like? Has Edinburgh University sanctioned the intolerance of disagreement to such a degree that individuals now require police protection on its campus? Edinburgh University Principal Professor Peter Mathieson has voiced his commitment to protecting academic freedom, but has too much ground already been lost by the inaction so far of Edinburgh University leadership?

Commendation and admiration are without doubt to be awarded to EAFAF for their persistent commitment to the hosting of reasoned discussion in the face of persecution and abuse. Their struggle for academic freedom is now a ground zero for change in educational institutions in Scotland and beyond. I am very grateful also to the police and security professionals who ensured the safety of the public last night, and ensured the event went ahead without incident. Further thanks are also owed to the filmmakers, who have gone to great effort to platform via their film the voices of women all too often silenced and prevented from advocating for their rights. Thank you also to For Women Scotland, Murray Blackburn Mackenzie and the numerous feminists who attended last night to show their support and embolden the women of Scotland to stand up for our rights. With that unwithering resolve in mind, it feels pertinent to quote the rallying words of Dr Jane Clare Jones said in the film:

‘…they misunderstood that women are actually generally quite accommodating until you really really take the piss and we put a line down, and then –

We will not fucking move.’

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