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Gender-critical barrister voices anger towards Bristol SU's decision to categorise talk as ‘high risk’

Sarah Phillimore expresses frustration at risk assessment which said her Bar Soc talk would require security due to it posing a 'high risk of public disorder'.

By Roya Shahidi, Co-Editor-in-Chief

In a tweet posted today, Sarah Phillimore, a gender-critical family law barrister at St John's Chambers, expressed anger towards Bristol SU's assessment that her talk posed a 'high risk of public disorder'.

The risk assessment attributed the need for security to Phillimore's 'views on gender, notably the trans community' as it 'may mobilise some opposition'.

It also detailed the risk of attracting 'heightened media interest', due to her large Twitter following ('c. 30k') and media presence, particularly Phillimore's 'appearances on GB News'.

Screenshot of Bristol SU's risk assessment of Sarah Phillimore's talk / Sarah Phillimore @SVPhillimore on X

Bristol SU's risk assessment also highlights the precedent that 'historically speakers with similar views' have mobilised opposition. For example, last year a 'Women Talk Back' event sparked a protest due to the trans-exclusionary nature of the organisation.

Phillimore was able to access these correspondences between the Bristol SU and Bristol University after making a Data Subject Access Request under the FOIA.

On 24 January, the University of Bristol's Bar Society invited Sarah Phillimore to speak at a Diversity in Law event about her experience as a disabled barrister.

The event was originally planned for the 14 February but was later changed to the 13 February.

On 12 February, Bristol SU submitted an external speaker request to Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost. It states that the request from the Bar Society was 'submitted later than the process requires'.

Screenshot of email sent by Bristol SU to Professor Judith Squires / Sarah Phillimore @SVPhillimore on X

The email said that, after conducting an initial assessment, Sarah Phillimore's talk had a 'high risk level of public disorder'.

Bristol SU detailed to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor that the Security Services then 'determined that unfortunately there was insufficient time to mobilise an appropriate security presence'. As a result, Bristol SU told the Bar Society that they would have to 'postpone their event to a later date'.

The SU added in the email that the society said that 'they may choose not to reinvite the speaker for a future date'.

Phillimore then received an email from the Bar Society explaining the postponement of the event:

'I’m awfully sorry, our Social Sec has made me aware that the Student Union services have now said that they need 3 weeks to discuss having the talk due to the ‘sensitivities’ of a talk on diversity and that they will need security for the talk. None is available on the day.

'We are very keen on holding the talk as diversity at the Bar is very important to our society.'

In a tweet posted today, Sarah Phillimore responded to the likelihood that she would not be invited back as a speaker: 'Please don’t, as my refusal is likely to offend you. I have given up many hours of my time to engage with students, judge moots etc.

'I will have nothing further do to with any institute of higher education that elevates student threats of violence against its statutory obligations to promote freedom of speech.'

This tweet has gained traction on the app with hundreds of users reacting to the controversy.

Sarah Phillimore is the co-founder of Fair Cop, a group of 'gender-critical lawyers, police officers, writers & professionals' who express concern 'about police attempts to criminalise people for expressing opinions that don’t contravene any laws'.

Phillimore states that she is 'gender-critical'. In an article in her newsletter from 2022, she defines this as the belief 'that sex is real and immutable and should be retained as a protected characteristic in the UK Equality Act 2010'.

In a newsletter article posted today, Phillimore commented: '[..] I won’t be giving any more of my time and my experience, or at least not to any organisation that shows such a dangerous contempt for its own core purpose. I wish the students well.

'But sooner than they think, they will come up against people and situations that they can’t riot their way out of. I wish them all the luck in the world and I hope they enjoy the Brave New World of their creation.'

A Bristol SU spokesperson commented: 'We are committed to upholding Freedom of Speech and we support our student groups to invite a wide range of speakers onto our campus. 

'Any external speaker events are considered in accordance with the shared External Speakers Process which includes clear timescales to allow appropriate risk assessments to take place. The process can be found here.

'On this occasion our risk assessment, which included comparison to previous similar events, was that the event required security to ensure the safety of all involved.  With only ten days’ notice given, the University wasn't able to arrange sufficient security in time, and therefore the student group were advised to postpone the event to a later date.'

Epigram has approached Bar Society for comment.

Featured image: Bar Society's Instagram @bristolbarsoc

What do you think about the SU's decision?