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Free Speech Society event postponed due to 'threats of protest'

The event was hosting Julie Bindel, a feminist with contentious views on gender and bisexuality

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A Free Speech Society event has been postponed due to “threats of protest”, meaning additional safety measures are necessary.

The event is hosting Julie Bindel, a self-proclaimed “feminist campaigner” who has written work that has been interpreted as bi-phobic and transphobic by members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Free Speech Society have advertised the evening with Julie Bindel as one of “feminism and free speech”, recognising Bindel’s remarks on prostitution, porn and political lesbianism. The Free Speech Society were clear that this event was not focused on gender.

An open letter addressed to YUSU urges them to bar Julie Bindel from campus, arguing she is “biphobic, transphobic, and misogynistic”. The letter suggests this goes against the University’s published Equality and Diversity policy, which works to ensure all students are “treated fairly and with dignity and respect”. Rachel Yeldham, the author of the letter, suggests that allowing Julie Bindel on campus goes against these principles.

Julie Bindel has expressed views that may be deemed contentious, arguing in her 2012 Huffpost blog that if “bisexual women had an ounce of sexual politics, they would stop sleeping with men”. When writing about women who might have sex with other women whilst not labelling themselves lesbians for The Spectator in 2019, Bindel refers to them as “attention-seeking narcissists”, which could be perceived as an insult to bisexual women.

Bindel has also made statements that could seem anti-transgender, with the York Student Solidarity Network arguing that she has a “public history of hatred and bigotry towards bi, pan and trans people” in their Instagram statement. In an article from The Guardian in 2004, Bindel states that trans women “disposing of their genitals” [having a sex change] “does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man”.

Nouse reached out to Julie, who said she had nothing to add.

Rachel Yeldham argues that allowing Bindel to enter campus and platform her views at the Free Speech Society is irresponsible, leading to students being exposed to triggering and unfounded statements around the validity of their sexuality. The entirety of Yeldham’s statement can be seen in the open letter, which can be read here.

However, the University is required by Section 43 of the Education (No.2) Act 1986 to help ensure that “freedom of speech within the law is secured on University premises for members, students and employees”.

Patrick O’Donnell, President of the University of York Students’ Union said:
"Student wellbeing is a priority for YUSU as is our commitment to protecting the right to freedom of expression within the law.

"The Education Act places legal duties on universities and by extension students’ unions to uphold free speech. Whilst this includes opinions that may shock, offend or disturb, the law is clear, freedom of expression should not be abused for the purpose of unchallenged hatred or bigotry.

"While we will work with the Free Speech Society to support the proposed event to go ahead in due course in line with safety recommendations, students have the right to express opposition to the views of this or any other speaker. YUSU is absolutely committed to ensuring that those that wish to challenge or protest peacefully will equally be supported and enabled to do so."

In an interview with Nouse in November, the President of Free Speech Society, Euan Clayton, proclaimed that the group helps students “become more comfortable disagreeing with other people”. However, critics argue that the potentially problematic nature of Bindel’s comments throws this into disregard, with one commenter on the Instagram post arguing the society’s idea of free speech “always seems to come back to attacking the most marginalised to show that you can”.

When asked for comment, the President of the Free Speech Society, Euan Clayton said “Julie has made statements deemed divisive and provocative in the past. The statements may be strong worded but she has every right to express these views. They do not break hate speech law – being offensive is not a crime.”

“The event’s focus was exploring why there is little representation of feminist thought at universities beyond liberal/choice feminism, not Ms Bindel’s opinions on gender identity.

“Why does almost every feminist society at British universities only allow a single perspective? Why are there so few radical feminist societies that allow voices to speak on the harms of the sex industry and its connection with sex trafficking and sexual violence? This is what was going to be explored. Criticism of the sex industry is not bigotry, particularly when those comments come from a perspective of wanting to protect vulnerable women. It’s selfish to believe that only your views on issues like this should be allowed to be expressed.”

“The idea that comments a speaker has made in the past (some of which in jest) that have caused offence means that they should not be welcome to have a platform is intolerant. The idea that Julie could be painted as “misogynist” is preposterous given her 40+ year history of campaigning on issues such as domestic violence, sex trafficking and women in the prison system.

“Words are not violence, words don’t make people unsafe. If having your perspective challenged makes you feel that way it’s your issue, not the world’s.

Students have the opportunity to challenge the speaker in good faith during the Q&A and the speaker will respond in kind.”

The event is postponed until further notice, in order to ensure it can happen safely.

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