Merton’s code of conduct for its Equality Conversation 2020 event invited criticism from academics arguing for freedom of speech. The college’s removal of the code then provoked public reproval from student transgender activists.

The code of conduct and its critics

Equality Conversation is a series of events aiming to “enhance understanding of equality and diversity issues through constructive discussion.” Taking place on Feb. 3 in Merton’s T.S. Eliot Lecture Theatre, the theme for this year’s entry is Perspective on Trans Intersectionality.

The event features talks from invited speakers and representatives of LGBTQ+ and transgender groups in the UK. The talks also make time for discussion and questions from the audience to engage with the speakers and key issues.

Signing up for the event initially meant also agreeing to a code of conduct, which sparked criticism from academics. The event’s code of conduct had requested speakers “to refrain from using language or putting forward views intended to undermine the validity of trans and gender diverse identities.”

The Telegraph reported academics criticising the clause as “draconian” and “suppressing gender-critical thought.” Prof. Selina Todd, a history tutor as St. Hilda’s, claimed the clause “set a dangerous precedent” and “stunned” her. Prof. Todd also recently received security detail in response to alleged threats to her safety from transgender activists in Oxford.

Merton removing the code of conduct

In response, Merton replaced the event’s code of conduct with a statement asserting for gender identities as well as academic free speech.

In a post detailing the change on Friday, Jan. 24, Merton’s official Facebook account echoed the new instructions on the event booking page, stating “the University and College prioritise the protection both of academic freedom and of their members from unlawful discrimination.”

The Facebook post explained the code of conduct “was intended to ensure that people could participate in the conversation without fear of disruption or harassment,” without intending to “restrict or undermine freedom of speech or academic debate in any way.”

Aiming to create an environment “that prizes academic freedom while being free from discrimination, harassment, or victimisation,” the new statement on the event booking page “ask[s] that all attendees are respectful of all gender identities,” with the code of conduct removed.

Criticisms from Oxford’s student transgender activists

The code of conduct’s removal became contentious as Trans Action Oxford denounced Merton’s decision. On their Facebook page, they are committed to “fighting transphobia in all its forms, including but not limited to transmisogyny, enbyphobia, and cissexism.” As a group, Trans Action Oxford is an Oxford-based student political organisation that endeavours to promote and advocate for transgender rights and visibility in the city.

A joint statement Was released by Trans Action Oxford and Oxford Student Union VPs Róisín McCallion and Amber Sparks on Friday, Jan. 24. The organisation was “deeply disappointed by the cowardice demonstrated by Merton College in removing a clause restricting hate speech from the code of conduct for their ‘2020 Equality Conversation’.” 

Asserting discussion on transgender experiences necessitates “mutual respect between participants in these conversations,” Trans Action Oxford found the code of conduct encouraging — one “which does not allow for hateful and discriminatory language towards trans people.” The joint statement also emphasised that its members “do not believe that the validity of trans people’s genders can be a legitimate topic for debate.”

The group also expressed disappointment with Selina Todd and Michael Biggs. Both of whom were critics of the code, as well as currently associated with the university. In the statement’s view, the tutors’ actions “sought to deny trans people the freedom of speech they claim to defend.”

Ultimately, Trans Action Oxford condemned the removal as an “utter failure of the University and its Colleges to take the concerns of the trans community in Oxford seriously.”

Still waters for now

Despite Trans Action Oxford’s open letter, the booking page has not been edited since the code’s removal. It is unclear whether any further action will take place regarding the controversy.