The Open University “feared” being seen to support gender-critical beliefs when it failed to protect a professor from harassment, a judge ruled.
Prof Jo Phoenix, a criminology professor, was celebrating on Monday night after an employment tribunal found that she had been forced to quit her job because of the university’s conduct.
A ruling found that the Open University’s failure to protect her from harassment from colleagues and trans activists was motivated by “fear of being seen to support gender-critical beliefs” and “fear of the pro gender identity section” of the university.
Prof Phoenix started working at the university in 2013 and hoped to retire there.
In 2018 she and 53 other academics signed a letter sent to The Guardian newspaper raising concerns about the introduction of self identification for trans people wanting to undergo gender reassignment.
This caused disquiet among some of her colleagues who were “hostile” to gender-critical beliefs.
Views described as ‘problematic’
The tribunal heard that in June 2019 The Sunday Times published a letter signed by Prof Phoenix and other academics registering “disquiet over a perceived inappropriately close relationship between the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and UK universities”.
Her views were described as “problematic and scary” by senior lecturer Dr Deborah Drake, the hearing was told and another staff member demanded she be punished.
In October 2019 Prof Louise Westmarland reduced Prof Phoenix to tears when she raised her gender-critical views in a meeting.
“Prof Westmarland said to [Prof Phoenix] that ‘having you in the department was like having a racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table’,” the tribunal found.
“Prof Westmarland was effectively telling [her] off for expressing her gender-critical beliefs.”
Backlash to network
The tribunal was told that on June 16 2021, Prof Phoenix launched the OU Gender Critical Research Network with two colleagues with similar views.
“[She] believes it was important to create and protect a space for gender-critical research because the theoretical perspectives that sex is a social construct which is mutable is sometimes presented as truth and [she] believes that others should be free to challenge that perspective without censure,” the tribunal heard.
However, she faced an immediate backlash from colleagues who were particularly incensed about her appearance on a podcast which referred to “men in dresses”.
They wrote an open letter calling on the OU and vice chancellor to withdraw support for the group, effectively “deplatforming” it.
“We do not believe that freedom of speech or academic freedom should come at the expense of marginalised groups such as those possessing with protected characteristics under the law,” it said.
“Gender-critical feminism is a strand of thought and a belief that is fundamentally hostile to the rights of trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people.”
Prof Phoenix was then the victim of a “pile on”, targeted with a series of tweets and retweets from colleagues which described her as transphobic as well as statements from Open University-affiliated groups criticising her views.
Almost 20 claims upheld
The tribunal found that by June 2021 she was working in a “hostile environment”. She asked bosses for help to protect her from bullying and harassment but received insufficient support, it said.
In December 2021 she resigned, claiming she had been made to feel like a “pariah” and then took the university to the tribunal.
Upholding almost 20 of Prof Phoenix’s claims, the tribunal, chaired by employment judge Jennifer Young, said: “We do not consider that the [university] had a proper reason for allowing the harassment to continue without publicly taking action to prohibit it.
“Upholding academic freedom did not prevent the [university] from taking action to prohibit the harassment.
“We find that the [university] did not provide [Prof Phoenix] protection particularly in the form of asking staff and students not to launch campaigns to deplatform the GCRN, or make calls to remove support for [her] gender-critical research, or use social media to label [her] transphobic or TERF.”
In a statement on Twitter, Prof Phoenix said: “Thank you to everyone who supported me, put some pennies into my crowdjustice, bought me drink, sent me a message of support. This is all our win. We did this.”
Prof Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of the Open University, said: “We acknowledge that we can learn from this judgement and are considering the findings very carefully.
We are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of everyone involved in the case and acknowledge the significant impact it has had on Prof Phoenix, the witnesses and many other colleagues.
“Our priority has been to protect freedom of speech while respecting legal rights and protections. We are disappointed by the judgement and will need time to consider it in detail, including our right to appeal.”
Prof Phoenix’s compensation will be decided at a later date.