A vote on freedom of expression at Cambridge University in Britain has been described as a “victory for free speech” by those concerned that debate is being shut down on campuses.
The Campaign for Cambridge Freedom sought to amend new guidelines which required opinions of staff, students and visiting speakers to be “respectful” of the views and “identities” of others. Critics, including Dr Arif Ahmed who is a philosophy professor at Cambridge, warned that the guidelines were unnecessarily vague and subjective and could limit freedom of expression.
‘A lot of people feel as if they’re living in an atmosphere where there are witch-hunts going on, a sort of academic version of Salem in the 17th century or the McCarthyite era,’ Dr Ahmed told The Times. The campaign he spearheaded claimed the new guidelines would block controversial ideas and debates.
The debate at Cambridge was seen by some as a microcosm of the ongoing controversy regarding “cancel culture” which has seen respected speakers and academics such as Jordan Peterson and others barred from having a platform in universities.
The free speech campaign was prompted by the university’s plan to enforce guidelines which would have insisted that “respect” rather than “tolerance” was a requirement which some academics believed would be used to shut down controversial opinions or subjects. They argued that “freedom to question” was also being undermined.
That led academics, including Dr Ahmed, to propose amendments to the guidelines so that free speech would operate without “fear of intolerance” rather than a requirement for respect.
About a third of the 7,000 members of Regent House, the governing body of Cambridge, were asked to vote on the amendments. 87% favoured the amendment protecting free speech.
80% also approved of an amendment to guidelines for visiting speakers to the university which said that “any speaker who has been invited to speak at a meeting or other event, on university premises or at the student union, must not be stopped from doing so unless: they are likely to express unlawful speech, or their attendance would lead the host organisation to breach other legal obligations, and no reasonably practicable steps can be taken to reduce these risks”.
Supporting the amendments, actor and Cambridge alumnus Stephen Fry said: “A demand for respect is like a demand for a laugh, or demands for love, loyalty and allegiance. They cannot be given if not felt.
“Perhaps what is meant is that Cambridge University wants decorum and politeness. These are codes, much like a dress code, to which any reasonable person might be expected to conform. But please do not tell us what to think and feel.”
Author Douglas Murray described it as a win for free speech while others welcomed it as a “victory” for freedom of expression.
A win for freedom of speech. And a loss for Britain’s worst university vice chancellor. https://t.co/jhUAVWyadG
— Douglas Murray (@DouglasKMurray) December 9, 2020
The office of the Vice-Chancellor, having previously supported the guidelines, welcomed the result.
“Freedom of speech is a right that sits at the heart of the University. This statement is a robust defence of that right. The University will always be a place where anyone can express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, and where those views can be robustly challenged. The statement also makes it clear that it is unacceptable to censor, or disinvite, speakers whose views are lawful but may be seen as controversial,” a statement said.
In an interview with Unherd, Dr Ahmed said the guidelines would have served as a justification for the controversial decision to reject Jordan Peterson as a visiting fellow last year.
Would Cambridge's new free speech policy have served as justification for rejecting @jordanbpeterson as a visiting fellow last year?
— UnHerd (@unherd) December 7, 2020