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Victory for free speech at Cambridge University: Academics reject demand for ‘respectful’ debate

Cambridge academics win free speech row as rebels vote down university chiefs’ plan to force them to be ‘respectful of the diverse identities of others’

  • Cambridge dons opted instead to support ‘tolerance’ of differing opinions
  • They backed amendments making it harder for speakers to be ‘no-platformed’ 
  • Revised guidelines ensure right to express ‘controversial or unpopular opinions’ 

Academics voting on a new free speech policy at Cambridge University have rejected demands that views remain ‘respectful’, fearing this could crush freedom of expression.

In what is being seen as a victory for common sense, dons opted instead to support ‘tolerance’ of differing opinions.

Protecting the right to robust debate, they also decisively backed amendments making it harder for public speakers to be ‘no-platformed’ – or boycotted because of their views.

The changes mean the university’s updated Statement on Freedom of Speech now spells out that speakers can be barred only if they are likely to use ‘unlawful speech’ or cause other legal problems.

Cambridge University dons opted instead to support ‘tolerance’ of differing opinions

A large majority of academics voted to significantly modify the proposed guidelines, which insisted on staff and students being ‘respectful of the differing opinions of others’.

It comes weeks after students at Clare College tried to force a porter out of his job after he declined to support a pro-trans motion in his role as a city councillor.

Philosophy fellow Dr Arif Ahmed had spearheaded the campaign to amend the policy

Philosophy fellow Dr Arif Ahmed had spearheaded the campaign to amend the policy

The revised guidelines ensure the right to express ‘controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of intolerance or discrimination’.

They will expect ‘staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the differing opinions of others’. Academics also beefed up passages against the ‘no-platforming’ of outside speakers, even if controversial, saying they ‘must not be stopped’ except on narrow legal grounds.

The row at Cambridge gained wider attention as part of the so-called ‘cancel culture’ in which public figures with controversial views are ostracised either online or in the real world.

Welcoming the amendments, Roger Mosey, the Master of Selwyn College, said it was a ‘huge win for stronger safeguards for freedom of speech’.

Philosophy fellow Dr Arif Ahmed had spearheaded the campaign to amend the policy.

The Gonville and Caius College philosopher argued the notion of respect was ‘dangerously vague and open-ended’ and could be used to shut down legitimate events, opinions or subjects if they were seen as disrespectful or offensive.

Revised guidelines ensure right to express ¿controversial or unpopular opinions'. Pictured: People punting on the river in front of a Cambridge college

 Revised guidelines ensure right to express ‘controversial or unpopular opinions’. Pictured: People punting on the river in front of a Cambridge college

He said last week: ‘A lot of people nowadays 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.

‘If a view is idiotic we should be quite free to say a view is idiotic. If a religious or political or other position is a tissue of bigotry and superstition, then we should be free to say those things without fear that somebody would find it disrespectful.’

The row has been seen as a fightback against vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Toope and the perception he is keen to push a liberal ‘woke’ agenda.

However, the university denies this is the case and Prof Toope said last night that he ‘welcomed’ the vote, which was ‘an emphatic reaffirmation of free speech in our university’.

He added: ‘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.’

… but at Oxford, new students ‘value identity issues ahead of open debate’

Students are arriving at Oxford with no idea about free speech but strident opinions on identity politics, a university professor says.

Alan Rusbridger, principal of historic college Lady Margaret Hall, said first years ‘look a bit blank’ when he introduces the concept.

These ‘very bright students’ are bewildered simply because ‘nobody has talked to them about it’, he added. But the same pupils hold ‘fierce views’ on their identity.

He said: ‘Somebody ought to have told them by the time they’re 18 and get to Oxford about the broader theory of free speech and how free speech itself is the most potent weapon.’ Former Guardian editor Prof Rusbridger was quizzed on free speech by a House of Lords human rights committee yesterday.

He gave a withering assessment of ‘no- platforming’ after ex-Home Secretary Amber Rudd had an invitation to speak at Oxford withdrawn earlier this year when students objected to her role in the Windrush scandal.

He added: ‘If you have Oxford undergraduates who are saying we don’t feel powerful enough to take on these arguments, then I think you have a problem.’ 

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