Cambridge University’s vice-chancellor is being urged to re-invite the controversial Canadian professor Jordan Peterson to take up a fellowship in light of a vote allowing “tolerance” of differing views.
An offer of a visiting fellowship for the self-styled “professor against political correctness” was rescinded last year after protests from faculty and students.
The university’s policy now emphasises “tolerance” of differing views instead of being “respectful” of them. And another amendment, covering “platforming”, stresses that those invited to speak at the university “must not be stopped from doing so” as long as they remain within the law.
The journalist Toby Young said he would be writing, as a director of the Free Speech Union, to Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Prof Stephen Toope, to ask for the invitation to Peterson to go ahead following Tope’s welcome of the vote this week as “an emphatic reaffirmation of free speech in our university”.
A dozen members of the Free Speech Union were said by Young to have been among the academics on the university’s governing body, Regent House, who voted by an overwhelming majority (86.9%) in favour of the changes to the proposed freedom of speech policy.
Initially the policy would have required Cambridge University staff, students and visitors to be “respectful” of differing views. This was overwhelmingly rejected in a vote by the university’s governing body.
Though chalked up by some as victory for one side in ongoing “culture wars” around freedom of speech and identity, the issue is unlikely to be mirrored at other campuses due to the relative uniqueness of legislative powers at play at Cambridge and Oxford University. At other campuses, policies are largely top down.
But Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Cambridge who led the move, said he believed it would now be less likely that people would try to have others “disinvited”.
He said: “I hope it will also embolden people to invite others to events where they may have previously had concerns.”
He cited the case of Selina Todd, an Oxford University professor whose invitation to speak at the Oxford International Women’s Festival was withdrawn. Todd said she was told by the event’s organisers that the decision was due to pressure from trans activists.
“That would be the example of the kind of disinvitation that could not now happen, and I hope that societies would also be more comfortable about deciding to invite controversial speakers,” said Ahmed.
He declined to comment on the issue around Peterson but said: “In general terms I think that showing a lack of respect through speech, writing or research for, say, religion, or climate change denial, should not be grounds for being disinvited.”
Others at Cambridge have continued to offer a different view. Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies, said: “A government-ordered regulation suppressing protest (under the guise of free speech) has been pushed through with enthusiasm by a large number of traditionalist (mostly) men.”
Ted Tregear, a research fellow at Cambridge University who was previously branch secretary of a union for academic staff, said the policy had come about due to pressure from the Department for Education and Office of Students.
While he did not support the original policy, he believed that the new wording “made it even worse” and had been used by some people to “to rehash a kind of moral panic about free speech”.
“I am particularly disturbed personally by the notion that once you have invited someone then you can’t decide not to invite them,” he said, giving the hypothetical example of how conference organisers’ hands might be tied in cases where it emerged that an invited participant planned to use it as an exercise to air easily debunked, pseudo-scientific, racist positions.
A spokesperson for the University and College Union (UCU), a union representing more than 120,000 academics and support staff, said: “Academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law is absolutely vital in any civilised society.
“It is crucially important that our universities stand against any attempts to curb the freedom to challenge opinion and explore sensitive issues, including through protest.”