Jo Phoenix v The Open University – A victory for all women
Jo Phoenix was a Professor of Criminology at the Open University.
In 2019, the Sunday Times newspaper published an open letter signed by Professor Phoenix and other academics which criticised the perceived inappropriately close relationship between the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and UK universities through the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme. In 2021, she set up the Open University Gender Critical Research Network (GCRN).
The opening of the GCRN and Professor Phoenix’s gender critical beliefs led to her being publicly vilified by her own colleagues who posted tweets and retweets describing her as transphobic. She was referred to as a “racist uncle” by Professor Louise Westmarland in a meeting regarding Professor Phoenix’s attendance at a talk held by Woman’s Place UK on the topic of trans rights. She was also shunned in departmental meetings from speaking up about her experiences of being treated in detrimental ways because of her gender critical beliefs and research.
Eventually, 368 colleagues signed an open letter calling for the disaffiliation of the GCRN and accused Professor Phoenix and the GCRN of transphobia. This letter was available publicly as a Google Doc.
Following the publication of the open letter signed by her colleagues, Professor Phoenix submitted a grievance to the Open University and asserted that she was experiencing mental health issues from bullying and harassment. Eventually, she resigned from the Open University in December 2021 as she felt she was working in a ‘hostile environment’ and that the University had failed to support and protect her from harassment and discrimination.
The Employment Tribunal found that Professor Phoenix was constructively dismissed as the university breached the implied terms of trust and confidence in her employment contract and the duty to provide her with a suitable working environment. This was made clear by her colleagues contributing to and publishing the open letter calling for the disaffiliation of GCRN and for the publication of harassing tweets.
The tribunal also found that the Open University failed to provide Professor Phoenix with sufficient protection from harassment during the six months from launching the GCRN until her resignation in December 2021. It was held that the failure to provide a suitable working environment for Professor Phoenix was harassment and that Professor Phoenix’s dismissal was discriminatory by reason of harassment. They also upheld her claim of post-employment victimisation due to the investigation into her grievance being suspended once she resigned.
Provided that it is not harmful, people should be able to express and explore their beliefs. Protecting gender critical beliefs is not only about defending free speech, but also about upholding the core values of a diverse and inclusive academic community. A healthy academic environment should be centred around the open exchange of ideas even if they are considered controversial.
You can read the full judgement here.