Does the Fight Transphobia UniMelb campaign against a feminist philosopher violate academic freedom?

A campaign by the activist group Fight Transphobia UniMelb against feminist philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith escalated recently. There have been calls to boycott her course on feminism at the University of Melbourne. Posters and stickers around the campus and its environs have declared “Our demands: Transphobes and Nazis off campus” and that: “Only a Fascist takes ‘Feminism’”.

In response, Lawford-Smith has lodged a formal complaint with WorkSafe Victoria. She accuses the university of failing to provide her with a safe work environment, and to uphold academic freedom.

Academic freedom is important because if scholars are constrained from arguing against prevailing views, then universities cannot fulfil their socially critical role of challenging dogmas and unearthing new truths. The progress of science and the development of knowledge depends on new and contrary ideas being aired and tested.

Academic freedom can be threatened, in different ways, by domestic governments and security agencies, foreign governments, industry (through leveraging research funding), and even the increasingly commercial nature of university administration.

But can it also be threatened by student activism?

The question is what to do when peaceful protest tips into personalised attacks aiming to remove specific university employees, or into sustained disruption of classes that other students want to take.

It’s hard to see what is left of academic freedom if small groups of students can, through tactics of targeted attacks on individual scholars, deliberately impose their views on what counts as prohibited research ideas and harmful speech.

Source: Does the Fight Transphobia UniMelb campaign against a feminist philosopher violate academic freedom?

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