Raquel Rosario Sánchez on Bristol’s ‘hollow victory’ in trans row

PhD student says her legal defeat raises important questions about duty of care owed to students who face harassment

May 18, 2022
Raquel Rosario Sanchez outside Bristol County Court
Source: Shutterstock

A PhD student who faced a two-year hate campaign from transgender activists has said her university has won a “pyrrhic victory” after an employment tribunal dismissed her claim that it had breached any duty to protect her from bullying and harassment.

Raquel Rosario Sánchez sued the University of Bristol for allegedly failing in its duty of care towards her after she received months of threats, abuse and vilification for chairing a meeting by Woman’s Place UK. The feminist group, which faced disruptive protests in Bristol again this month, has been accused of transphobia – a claim it strongly denies – for its insistence that people cannot change their biological sex.

In the run-up to the event in February 2018, an open letter naming Ms Rosario Sánchez was circulated within the university, claiming that the event would stir up “fear and hate-based narratives” against the trans community and provide “a platform for hate speech”. Social media abuse followed, including a post by the open letter’s organiser – another Bristol PhD student – who wrote about their intention to “punch” attendees.

Ms Rosario Sánchez raised £120,000 in crowdsourced funding to sue her university for negligence, claiming that she had suffered distress and disruption because of sustained harassment that was, she said, “enabled” by the university. She questioned why disciplinary proceedings against the student who had threatened to “punch TERFs” – trans-exclusionary radical feminists – were delayed for almost a year before being dropped, following pleas that their mental health had been affected.

But while an employment tribunal judge expressed sympathy for Ms Rosario Sánchez’s situation, noting that the 32-year-old had faced “violent, threatening, intimidating behaviour or language” and that a “lack of care” and “incompetent” decisions had led to lengthy delays to the hearing of the “ringleader” of her critics, he ruled that Bristol did not breach any actionable duties towards Ms Rosario Sánchez, and had followed its rules and regulations.

Many of the legal arguments hinged on whether the university had a duty of care towards students who faced sustained harassment, Ms Rosario Sánchez told Times Higher Education.

“Their case was that they did not owe a duty of care to students who found themselves threatened with violence and intimidation, full stop,” she said. “This brings up the question: why have policies about bullying and harassment if they do not have a duty of care to students? It is nonsensical. There are a lot of people at the university who are appalled at [this] defence.”

Given the university’s high-profile efforts to support student mental well-being, this argument was “cynical”, Ms Rosario Sánchez said.

“To watch them argue in court that they should not have a duty of care to students who, like me, are victims of violent threats and intimidation from other students was dystopian,” she said. “They won the legal case, but what a pyrrhic victory to boast that you don’t care about your students.”

For its part, Bristol disputes that it had ever argued this but says it had questioned “whether a duty of care arose in a very specific set of circumstances” in relation to an off-campus event.

“As with all universities, we have a responsibility to provide our students with both academic and well-being pastoral care to support their academic progress,” said a spokesperson.

However, the case showed that Bristol exercised its duty of care only to “some students and then defends not owing it to others”, argued Ms Rosario Sánchez. “It’s a selective process that seems highly political and unequal”, particularly as this “targeting was encouraged by both staff members and students”, she said.

Ms Rosario Sánchez drew attention to the tribunal judge’s comments that she had faced “deplorable and abhorrent conduct” when she was threatened by a PhD student whose open letter was supported by staff members, and then by the students’ union, which attempted to pass a motion to “prevent trans-exclusionary radical feminist groups from holding events at the university”.

“Would this deplorable and abhorrent conduct have been allowed if it wasn’t aimed at a feminist defending sex-based rights? I don’t think so. You could see from the evidence that staff members and students felt empowered to bully and harass me because they didn’t consider I was a person with human rights of my own, whereas they knew they would be protected by the institution,” she said.

Despite her defeat, Ms Rosario Sánchez does not regret bringing her case.

“I will complete my doctorate because it is what I set out to do when I left the Dominican Republic,” she said. “But I will always feel a deep sense of shame at having a PhD from an institution that was willing to defend in court that they did not owe protection to students who are bullied, intimidated and threatened with physical violence by other students, like I was.”

The Bristol spokesperson said the university had “found itself at the centre of a highly polarised debate around gender identity and rights” but had “sought to remain neutral in our management of this conflict and to follow our internal complaints procedure”.

“While we are pleased the judge found this to be the case, dismissing all claims made against us, we acknowledge that this has been an incredibly challenging period for everyone involved,” they said.



Print headline: ‘Hollow victory’ in trans row

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