University forced to apologise and compensate PhD student over 'transphobic' tweets

Ewan Somerville
·3-min read
Jonathan Best - Lorne Campbell
Jonathan Best - Lorne Campbell

A university has been forced to apologise and pay compensation to a PhD student subjected to a lengthy disciplinary probe over “transphobic” tweets, in the first case of its kind.

Jonathan Best, 50, was investigated for six months by Huddersfield University after a fellow student filed an anonymous complaint about 13 tweets from his account, and his writings on transgender issues.

One tweet cited by the complainant stated “every trans woman is part of the same sex class as me. We’re all male”. They accused Mr Best of “misgendering” trans people and asked: “Could a trans woman student be expected to feel comfortable or respected being taught by him?”

Officials at the university launched a formal probe and summoned the music tutor to disciplinary hearings, later alleging he had potentially been “offensive” and not respected others’ “feelings”.

But in the first free speech case of its kind, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education - which handles student complaints - has now criticised multiple “procedural failings” with the university’s investigation and ordered it to apologise and pay him £800.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator also told the institution to swiftly review its disciplinary procedures, after Mr Best complained.

He told The Telegraph it illustrates the “chilling effect on free speech in action”, with censorship and a “low grade totalitarianism” sitfling scholarly debate on the distinction between gender identity and biological sex.

“In these free speech cases, the process is the punishment - getting through the process is grindingly difficult and stressful. It wears you down,” he said. “It makes you wonder if speaking and writing honestly is worth it.”

Jonathan Best
Jonathan Best

Last week The Telegraph reported how leading professors are facing formal investigations for “liking” and sharing tweets that students deem transphobic, as universities struggle to weigh academic freedom against pressure from activists to protect minorities from harm.

In Mr Best’s case, a student sent screenshots of his tweets and blog posts to university authorities. One said: “There is no such thing as ‘misgendering’. There is no such thing as ‘deadnaming’.” Another claimed “misogynistic trans ideology” was being pushed in schools.

The formal complaint alleged “repeated transphobic behaviour” and “discrimination”. An investigation was opened in August 2019 and Mr Best defended the posts under freedom of speech laws.

The following month the complaint was dropped but four new charges were levelled over him publishing the original complaint redacted online and campaigning for innocence.

He was issued a formal warning by a faculty dean, despite not being notified of the charges or allowed a formal defence beforehand, and accused of “sexual, homophobic, racial or other unlawful harassment of any student” and bringing the university into disrepute.

He was found in breach of the university’s social media and trans equality policies that protect against a “humiliating or offensive environment”. Mr Best successfully appealed, then went to the ombudsman which reviewed the case.

The OIA ruled last month: “We are not satisfied that the University has adequately apologised for the delay and the impact of the procedural failings on Mr Best. We consider that distress and inconvenience was caused to Mr Best, which has not been recognised by the University.”

A Huddersfield University spokesman said it was “committed to equality, diversity and inclusion and will rigorously investigate claims of discrimination against any of our students. Whilst the University cannot comment on individual cases, we will of course follow any instructions issued by the OIA”.

Ministers are planning a raft of new laws to uphold free speech at universities, including allowing students and academics to sue for compensation through the courts if they feel unfairly silenced.