'Women have vaginas': Equalities minister defends free speech amid university row over transgender comments

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is interviewed for the Sophy Ridge on Sunday show outside BBC Broadcasting House in central London before appearing on the BBC1 current affairs programme, The Andrew Marr Show. Picture date: Sunday April 25, 2021.
Liz Truss has defended the right to free speech. (PA)

Minister for women and equalities Liz Truss has defended free speech in response to a transgender row that erupted after a university launched an inquiry into comments a student made during an online seminar.

Abertay University student Lisa Keogh, 29, said she told a transgender issues seminar that women were born with vaginas and that the difference in physical strength between men and women "was a fact".

Keogh was later reported to the university by classmates and she is now facing a formal inquiry into the "offensive" and "discriminatory" comments.

It has also been suggested that Keogh's behaviour was abusive during the seminar, which she denies.

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The case has since sparked a debate both in the media and on social media over whether it is acceptable to say phrases like "women have vaginas" and "men have penises".

On Monday, Truss defended the right to free speech when asked about the university inquiry by LBC radio host Nick Ferrari.

Taking a similar stance to the one allegedly expressed by Keogh, Truss said: "Women do have vaginas, Nick."

She added: "I think we need to uphold our very very important tradition of free speech," when asked what she would say to people who seek to censor her.

It comes after Keogh, a final year student, complained that she was being punished for using her "legal right to free speech".

The mature student told BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour last week: "I should be entitled to say in my opinion without facing severe backlash like this.

"I shouldn't be getting disciplined for my legal right to free speech."

Keogh added that she felt the investigation had been "punishment in itself" as she took her final exams, making her feel "stressed" and worried.

Asked if she felt her case was being hijacked by those who had a bigger cause, she said: "No. I think my case is very relevant."

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Keogh also said her case had shown how free speech was being suppressed by people in universities taking offence to what she said.

"They've got the right to take offence but reporting somebody for offending you by accident, I don't think that's warranted," she said.

Asked if she regretted her comments, Keogh replied: "I stand by everything I said. I didn't say anything unlawful and everything I said is my opinion."

She added: "For me to say something discriminatory, I would have to single a person out, direct something at them and then discriminate against them in the language used and that's not something I did.

"I innocently took part in a debate where controversial and sensitive topics were at hand and I assumed that we were all mature adults that could discuss these topics."

A spokesperson for Abertay University said that statements like "women have vaginas" are "legal comments" that would not lead to any University misconduct investigation if expressed on campus "in a reasonable manner".

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"To be clear, all Abertay students are free to express their views on campus, as long as this is not done in an intolerant or abusive way which would breach our Code of Student Discipline. [This] does not police freedom of speech or the nature of views put forward during classroom discussion or debate," the spokesperson said.

"It exists to provide a framework within which disruptive, aggressive or abusive behaviour that makes fair and robust debate or classroom learning impossible can be identified and stopped.

"We believe that all universities should uphold freedom of speech within the law and we are proud that Abertay is a place where difficult and controversial debate can take place within an academic environment."

The spokesperson added that Scottish universities are required by law to investigate all complaints, whether by students, staff or members of the public.

"We are deeply saddened by the online abuse that has been aimed at our students and staff members as a direct result of the misreporting of this case in some sections of the press and conjecture on social media," it added.

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