Cambridge academics oppose ‘freedom of speech’ rules

University’s plan to require staff and students to be ‘respectful’ of each other’s ‘differing opinions’ fought by academic opponents

November 27, 2020

The University of Cambridge’s plan for a free speech policy requiring staff and students to be “respectful” of each other’s “differing opinions” is being fought by some of its academics, who warn the policy could restrict their teaching, be “weaponised” in scholarly disputes and threaten their careers.

The row could have wider implications, coming as some in government seek to argue the case for introducing a bill on campus free speech.

Cambridge’s planned changes to its Statement on Freedom of Speech, which revise a policy adopted in 2016, also list further circumstances in which the university could refuse permission for an event to be held on its premises.

Three amendments, which aim to make the revised policy “clearer and more liberal”, have been signed by around 60 Cambridge staff, including prominent academics such as economist Diane Coyle and statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter.

The amendments will go to a ballot of the university’s governing Regent House, made up of academics and senior administrators, opening on 27 November.

The revised free speech statement has already been passed by the university’s council, its main executive body.

The revised policy introduces a provision that says that “in exercising their right to freedom of expression, the university expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the differing opinions of others”, and that they are also expected to “be respectful of the diverse identities of others”.

One amendment seeks to replace the phrase “be respectful of” with “tolerate”.

Arif Ahmed, university reader in philosophy, who spoke against the new policy in the Regent House and proposed the amendments, said: “The problem with requiring ‘respect’ of all opinions and ‘identities’ is that ‘respect’ is vague, subjective and restrictive.

“For instance, David Hume certainly wrote disrespectfully about the Christian religion. Am I being disrespectful to that opinion or identity if I teach or endorse his views? Who gets to decide?”

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering and a former member of the university council, said: “When you get language like this passed into the university statutes and ordinances, it will be weaponised and used in the various tussles that take place – like between different anthropologists and different wings of the psychology department, and so on. So, it’s potentially very toxic.”

The new rules could be used to “break through academic tenure and threaten people with harm – professionally and even in employment terms”, he added.

Opponents of the revised policy come from “both left and right” politically, he said.

Another amendment objects to the revised policy’s list of circumstances in which the university could refuse permission for events to be held, which include when there is a “reasonable belief” that an event is likely to “include the expression of views that are unlawful because they are discriminatory or harassing”.

The amendment would say instead that “the university may only restrict speaker events given a reasonable belief that such events are likely to involve speech that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university”.

A Cambridge spokesman said: “The university is fully committed to the principle and promotion of freedom of speech and expression, and has a long tradition of seeking to safeguard them.”

He added on the amendments: “This is a matter for the Regent House to determine; the university has a democratic system of governance and this vote is an expression of that.”

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