Feminist academics in uproar over new union chief's 'Terf blocker' as they complain of assault on free speech

Camilla Turner
Dr Jo Grady used a controversial

Feminist academics have complained that their new union boss cannot uphold free speech because she has refused to listen to opposing views in the transgender debate. 

Dr Jo Grady, who was elected on Friday as the new general secretary of the University and College Union, used a controversial "Terf-blocker" which is a tool on Twitter that allows users to block a list of accounts. 

Terf, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, is generally used as a derogatory term to describe those who believe that “identifying” as a woman is not the same as being born a woman. It can also be used to refer to people who are deemed to hold “transphobic” views.

Ms Grady has defended her past use of a “Terf-blocker”, which she said is an “easy mechanism for blocking large numbers of accounts that have been identified as articulating transphobic views”. 

Prof Selina Todd, an expert in modern history at Oxford University, said that she and many colleauges consider "Terf" to be an "abusive term". 

Refusing to debate with people whose views you disagree with is not a suitable approach for a representative of academics, she said. 

Prof Rosa Freedman, Reading University’s chair of law, conflict and global development, said that by using a Terf-blocker “legitimises” the narrative that anyone who expresses gender critical views poses a danger to transgender students.

“She is in a position of leadership and is supposed to defend all academics and academic freedom,” she added.

Alice Sullivan, a professor of sociology at University College London, said: “Academic freedom means nothing if it does not extend to those with whom one disagrees.”

Michael Biggs, an associate professor of sociology at Oxford, said he fears Ms Grady will treat transgenderism “as a new orthodoxy, beyond question and scrutiny”.

He added: “Precisely because this issue is so contentious, the Union must defend the academic freedom of all its members—which will inspire our students to value intellectual and political debate.”

Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at Sussex University, said she is concerned by Ms Grady’s use of “block lists” which mean “she can’t hear voices of gender critical academics”.

Ms Grady, a senior lecturer in employment relations at Sheffield University Management School, was elected as general secretary on Friday with 64 per cent of the vote.

Defending her previous use of a “Terf-blocker”, she has said that “filtering out and muting people is not the same as denying them free speech”, adding that she used it due to the “enormous volume of personal abuse” she was getting online.  

Last year, Bristol University’s students’ union backed proposals to ban any “Terf” speakers who question the transgender status of women.

In 2015, students attempted to stop Germaine Greer, a leading feminist, from giving a lecture at Cardiff University on the basis that she had expressed transphobic views in the past.

Last October, the veteran lesbian activist Linda Bellos has been due to speak at Cambridge University, but a college feminist society revoked their invitation after she said she would be questioning trans politics.