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In a ruling keenly watched by proponents of free speech, an academic who was derisively compared to a “racist uncle” by her co-workers due to her gender-related opinions online, tasted victory in a claim against her employer.
Jo Phoenix, a highly esteemed professor of criminology, had sought administrative intervention following an unrelenting barrage of slander and life-threatening messages. This plea, however, fell on deaf ears, with the Open University (OU) opting to abandon support due to a dread of backlash if seen as endorsing the professor’s views.
The established criminologist had spent half a decade at OU when, in 2018, her signature appeared on an online open letter voicing concerns regarding self-identification for trans individuals seeking gender reassignment. The bold move, joined by 53 other academia members, kindled a fiery reaction from certain colleagues.
According to the presiding tribunal in Watford, Professor Phoenix was rebuked by Professor Westmarland saying, “Having you in the department was like having a racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table.”
The remarks were perceived as deriding Phoenix for expressing her stance on gender matters. Outside her responsibilities at the OU, Phoenix also founded the Gender Critical Research Network, assembling academics subscribing to the belief in biological sex’s veracity.
The move, however, led to more criticism. Fellow staff members petitioned the Vice-Chancellor to cut ties with her network. The situation took a nosedive when abusive tweets and retweets flagging her as transphobic came to light. By mid-2021, the academic environment had grown so hostile that Phoenix was forced to resign. Despite the bleak circumstances, the tribunal sided with Phoenix, validating nearly twenty of her counter-claims.
The judgment cast a spotlight on OU’s failure to shield its academic staff, highlighting its reluctance to be seen backing faculty with gender-critical views.
As reported by The Daily Mail, an emotional Professor Phoenix responded, “It was an exceptionally painful part of my career but I am glad for the win.”