Cambridge University rejects proposal it be ‘respectful’ of all views | Freedom of speech

Proposals requiring Cambridge University staff and students to be “respectful” of differing views under a freedom of speech policy have been overwhelmingly rejected in a vote by its governing body.

The policy will instead emphasise “tolerance” of differing views after an amendment put forward by those concerned about the impact on academic freedom was carried by a landslide majority (86.9%).

Cambridge alumni including Stephen Fry had been among those who had opposed elements of the new policy, which the actor and writer had described as “muddled”.

Visitors to the university would also have been asked to be “respectful” of the views and “diverse identities” of others.

It was subject to a ballot in recent weeks among members of the institution’s Regent House, its official governing body, which is largely comprised of academic and senior administrative staff.

There are also implications for the issue of “no platforming” as a result of the support for three amendments, elements of which stress that those invited to speak at the university “must not be stopped from doing so” as long as they remain within the law.

The vote was welcomed by Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Prof Stephen Toope, as “an emphatic reaffirmation of free speech in our university”.

He added: “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.

“Rigorous debate is fundamental to the pursuit of academic excellence and the University of Cambridge will always be a place where freedom of speech is not only protected, but strongly encouraged.”

The new policy reads: “In exercising their right to freedom of expression, the university expects its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the differing opinions of others, in line with the university’s core value of freedom of expression.

“The university also expects its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the diverse identities of others, in line with the university’s core value of freedom from discrimination.”

However, other academics at the university have expressed concern about the changes to the original policy statement, while the Cambridge branch of the Universities and Colleges Union has said that it and the amendments are not “fit for purpose”.

Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at Cambridge University, tweeted about the decision.
Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at Cambridge University, tweeted about the decision.

Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at the university, tweeted: “There is no ‘free speech row’ at Cambridge. There is the university scrambling to follow government orders based on false moral panic, there are the poor students trying to make it less draconian, & there are the Freeze Peach brigade trying to stop the right to protest.”

The controversy has played out against the backdrop of increasingly fraught debates on campuses and elsewhere about the limits of freedom of speech.

Students at Cambridge University called earlier this year for a porter at Clare College to be suspended from his job after he resigned from his role on the city council in protest over a motion in support of transgender rights.

Opposition to the original freedom of speech policy proposal was spearheaded by a number of people at the university including Arif Ahmed, a philosophy professor there.

He told the Times last week: “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.”

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