Free speech group hopeful for controversial film showing

Protestors outside Edinburgh University
Protestors gathered outside a lecture hall in Edinburgh's George Square at a previous attempted showing

A group of academics at the University of Edinburgh hope a third bid to show a controversial documentary on women's rights and trans issues will go ahead on Wednesday.

The film Adult Human Female is due to be shown at a venue in George Square.

Two previous attempts to show it have been cancelled after pro-trans activists protested at the events.

They claimed the film includes "a clear attack on trans people's identities", a claim denied by both the film-makers and those trying to show it.

This time, the film's supporters hope that increased security and a pledge from the university to back academic freedom mean it will finally be shown.

But even if that happens, it is clear that the furore over Adult Human Female is one part of a much wider battle in universities.

What is Adult Human Female?

The film at the centre of the battle is described by its makers as "the UK's first feature length documentary about the clash between women's rights and gender ideology/trans rights".

It was directed by academics and film-makers Deirdre O'Neill and Michael Wayne and has been available to view on Youtube since December 2022.

It says women's rights have been infringed by aspects of the trans movement and defines sex as being determined by biology.

The filmmakers have written about the attempts to stop their work being shown around the UK.

An attempt to show the film last December at the University of Edinburgh was halted amid safety concerns after protesters formed a blockade around the venue. Police were called but no arrests were made.

A second attempt to show it was again cancelled in similar circumstances in April.

Some university staff and student groups had called for the screening to be called off, claiming the documentary contained content that was "a clear attack on trans people's identities".

Who is behind the screenings?

The events have been organised by University of Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom (EAFAF), which is made up of university staff who are concerned by what they call a "growing climate of censoriousness and a general chill around discussing and debating difficult issues in this university".

They do not accept claims that the film discriminates against trans people and say it in fact supports the Equality Act 2010, which protects trans people against discrimination.

Professor Jonathan Hearn, who teaches political sociology at the university and is a founding member of the group, says this is a debate about academic freedom and not trans rights.

"I believe the film has good reason to be shown and discussed. I do not believe it's transphobic. If we felt it was threatening to people we would have reservations about showing it," he said.

"But it just has views that are unpopular with some people.

"Our showing it here is a symbolic issue, showing that a small militant group cannot dictate to the whole university what can see," he added.

Who is protesting against it?

Those protesting against the showing come from a range of organisations representing both students and staff at the university.

Prominent among them are some members of the Edinburgh branch of the University and College Union and members of the university's Staff Pride Network, an LGBT+ support group.

An email from the UCU's joint presidents at Edinburgh to members on Friday 17 November, seen by the BBC, said a protest against the film would be hosted by the Edinburgh University Students' Association (EUSA) "trans & non-binary campaign and LGBTQ+ Campaign, in collaboration with FemSoc, Gender Liberation, Pride Society and Staff Pride Network".

The email said: "This protest against the University's decision to authorise the screening of Adult Human Female on campus will take place on 22 November from 17:30 outside 40 George Square.

"It would be wonderful to have a showing of UCUE members in solidarity with our trans and non-binary staff and students."

The BBC contacted EUSA for a comment but was told nobody was available to speak. The organisation pointed to its previous statement on the protests and attempts to show the film.

The statement said: "We recognise the value of academic discourse in university spaces, however, this film contains many inaccuracies regarding trans people, which has a demonstrable harmful impact on an already marginalised and vulnerable group, without any grounding in reality."

The Edinburgh branch of the UCU was approached for comment but did not give a response.

A poster protesting against the film showing.
Posters calling for action against the film showing have been put up around the university campus

The university and academic freedom

At the centre of this is an ancient institution - the University of Edinburgh - with an international reputation, clear policies on free speech and a duty of care to staff and students on both sides of the debate.

A spokesperson for the university said they remain "steadfast" in their commitment to upholding freedom of expression and academic freedom.

"It is in this context that the group Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom (EAFAF) is holding a rescheduled screening and discussion of the documentary 'Adult Human Female' on the University campus," they said.

"The decision to allow an event or discussion to proceed is made in line with our policies and is not an endorsement by the university of any views. We firmly uphold the right of people to take part in peaceful and lawful protest and we have measures in place to allow the event to proceed with the safety of both attendees and protestors as paramount."

The issue of free speech in universities has become heavily politicised.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament after the last attempt to show Adult Human Female was cancelled, First Minister Humza Yousaf said he had not seen the film but urged the university to defend freedom of speech and to allow robust debate and discussion.

He added: "I see that as no conflict with the other stance that I'm very proud of, which is supporting trans rights. That is something that I am unequivocal about.

"But we should ensure that our universities - and society more generally - are a place where we can have that robust exchange of ideas."

For Professor Hearn, ensuring the film goes ahead is fundamental to how our universities work.

"It is almost a test of honour for the university," he said.