Target of trans rights campaign lodges claim against University of Melbourne

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A feminist philosopher targeted by trans activists has lodged a formal complaint against the University of Melbourne, alleging it failed to provide a safe workplace.

Associate professor of philosophy Holly Lawford-Smith, in a complaint lodged last week with WorkSafe Victoria, accuses her employer of occupational health and safety breaches, of bullying her for her political views, and of undermining the university’s stated commitment to academic freedom.

Gender-critical feminist Holly Lawford-Smith has lodged a complaint against the University of Melbourne following a campaign against her on campus.Credit: Joe Armao

The gender-critical feminist, who is opposed to trans women having access to women-only spaces and services, said she lodged the complaint following a two-year campaign against her that reached a crescendo following her attendance at the now notorious Let Women Speak rally, which was gatecrashed by neo-Nazis.

“The institutional culture at Melbourne [University] and the way they allow gender-critical feminists to be treated is unacceptable and violates academic freedom and what a university should be about,” Lawford-Smith said.

“This is just the latest iteration of it. It has to stop, and they have to get a more constructive attitude towards this debate.”

The author of Gender Critical Feminism and a second book, Sex Matters, published by Oxford University Press, has for the past six weeks been the subject of an anonymous boycott campaign by student and trans rights activists against her second-year feminism class. She has also been the subject of disciplinary processes initiated by the university.

Some of the posters and stickers targeting Holly Lawford-Smith at the University of Melbourne.

Stickers and posters produced under the banner of Fight Transphobia Uni Melb started appearing on campus about a week after Lawford-Smith attended the March 18 rally at which black-clad neo-Nazis performed a Hitler salute on the steps of the Victorian parliament.

Liberal MP Moira Deeming’s attendance at the same rally triggered a series of political machinations that tested Opposition Leader John Pesutto and last week culminated in her expulsion from the Liberal party room.

The campaign posters and stickers – which university security have since removed – accused Lawford-Smith of arguing against the existence of transgender people and her prospective students of supporting fascism.

A month after the stickers and posters first appeared, University of Melbourne dean of arts Professor Russell Goulbourne condemned the campaign as disparaging of Lawford-Smith and intimidating towards students.

Holly Lawford-Smith addresses the March 18 Let Women Speak rally, an event now notorious for the presence of neo-Nazis.

But in her WorkSafe complaint, Lawford-Smith said Goulbourne had fuelled the campaign through an earlier email to staff in which he denounced the “dehumanising views expressed in the anti-transgender rally” as antithetical to his and the university’s values.

“This correspondence humiliated and wrongly disparaged me and my involvement in the rally,” she said in her complaint. “It also emboldened student activists to begin a campaign of harassment against me on campus and during my teaching periods.”

A university source, speaking confidentially to discuss internal matters, confirmed the university investigated Lawford-Smith’s attendance at the rally, where she was invited to speak by UK organiser Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, and found she had no case to answer. A separate review into her social posts is ongoing. Lawford-Smith declined to comment on the investigations.

University of Melbourne provost Nicola Phillips, while declining to discuss Lawford-Smith’s complaint or any disciplinary proceedings against the associate professor, said the institution had a “resolute commitment” to academic freedom that extended to gender-critical perspectives being debated on campus and Lawford-Smith teaching her course.

University of Melbourne Provost Nicola Phillips.

“Universities are absolutely the place where debate needs to thrive, including debate about controversial and difficult issues,” Phillips said. “That is foundational to the mission of universities and we have to protect that.”

Phillips said the university also had a “positive obligation” to ensure that all students, including transgender or gender diverse students, could “participate fully in the life of the university”.

The institution recently released a four-year LGBTIQA+ Inclusion Action Plan, which promises to improve its grievance and complaint processes for students and staff who experience discrimination.

The identities of the students involved in Fight Transphobia Uni Melb, which is contactable by encrypted ProtonMail, are not known to the university.

A spokesperson for the campaign, who gave their name only as Valerie for fear of reprisals by the university, said the group comprised students with different political views and gender identities, including some who had taken Lawford-Smith’s feminism class.

Valerie, who identifies as trans, said Lawford-Smith’s feminism class was not a “safe learning environment free from bigotry” and her teaching and writing “centred around the demonisation and delegitimisation of trans and gender diverse people”. They apologised to any students who felt intimidated by the campaign.

Amelia Bright, a 23-year-old trans woman and gender studies student, said she was not involved in the boycott campaign but called for the university to commission an external review of Lawford-Smith’s second-year subject by experts in teaching and learning, psychological safety, trans issues and feminism.

“Dr Lawford-Smith fundamentally doesn’t believe in hearing out trans people, in considering their safety or having them in public life,” said Bright, the editor of a report by the student union’s Queer Political Action Collective into Lawford-Smith’s feminism class.

“All of her personal views absolutely seep into this subject. Frankly, you wouldn’t let a flat-earther teach an astronomy class.”

Lawford-Smith is one of a shrinking number of academics working in Australian universities who approach questions about sex and gender from a radical feminist perspective. Her teachings maintain that sex distinctions between males and females, rather than gender identity, should be prioritised when considering women’s rights.

She was the subject of an earlier investigation by the university in 2021 after she established a website that invited women to provide anonymous submissions about their experiences of trans women accessing women’s only spaces such as change rooms, toilets and women’s shelters. The investigation did not result in any finding against her.

Lawford-Smith denies her research, teaching or writing is transphobic and said the internal scrutiny was exhausting, time-consuming and expensive.

She has engaged workplace law expert Stuart Wood, KC, who represented former James Cook University physicist Peter Ridd in a high-profile academic freedom dispute, and Holding Redlich workplace law expert Ben Marshall to represent her.

“It can’t be that every two years I have to pay $15,000 in lawyer fees or fear for my capacity to pay my mortgage,” she said. “That is just not a state that a person can work in. There has to be a point where it stops, and I think this is the point.”

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