Cambridge University Votes to Amend Rules That Curtailed Free Speech

December 10, 2020 Updated: December 10, 2020

Cambridge University amended rules which may cause a stifling of debate and the de-platforming of speakers, after a landslide vote by its governing members, the university said on Wednesday.

A number of academics and commentators congratulated the university for “a win for freedom of speech.”

“Congratulations to Arif Ahmed, member of the Free Speech Union’s Advisory Council, on his victory in Cambridge. The pro-free speech amendment got 1,316 votes, compared to 162 for the other side. Cambridge has now restored its reputation as a defender of academic free speech,” the Free Speech Union (FSU) wrote on Twitter.

Over 1,500 members of the Regent House, the 7,000-member governing body of Cambridge University, voted on Tuesday on Ahmed’s three amendments for the “University Statement on Freedom of Speech,” originally approved by the University on Dec. 9.

Professor Stephen J Toope, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, said he welcomed the result.

“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,” he said in a statement.

“The [amended] statement also makes it clear that is unacceptable to censor, or disinvite, speakers whose views are lawful but may be seen as controversial.”

Three Amendments

Firstly, the original statement said that the University expects its staff, students, and visitors to be “respectful” of the differing opinions and diverse identities of others.

Ahmed’s amendment replaced the word “respectful” with “tolerant.”

Writing about the amendment, the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms (CCF) said that the university has no right to demand academics to be respectful towards all beliefs and practices.

“On the contrary,” the statement reads, “we have a right, in some cases practically a duty, to satirize and to mock them.”

The second amendment, the CCF said, was to make it harder to force university societies to disinvite speakers whose remarks may be controversial.

The original statement spoke of the importance of an active speaker programme, and said that the statement and the Code of Practice on Meetings and Public Gatherings on University Premises provide “the only mechanism by which the University can cancel or impose conditions on meetings or events … as a result of the event’s subject matter and/or speaker(s).”

The amendment to this section added clarity to the limited reasons a speaker can be cancelled.

“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,” the amendment reads.

The third amendment replaced a vague and broad range of grounds on which the university can refuse or impose conditions on a meeting or event with specific narrow exceptions.

The CCF said that it would restrict “the circumstances in which the university itself can ban speakers.”

Writing in The Spectator, journalist, author, and political commentator Nick Cohen said that Ahmed was gracious in victory.

“Arif Ahmed, the Cambridge philosopher, who led the campaign to force the university to come out unequivocally for free debate, was gracious in victory,” Cohen wrote. “He told me he was sure that there was no malice on the part of the authorities. The debate seems very genteel. Very Cambridge.”

Past De-Platforming Incidents

In October, Cambridge students demanded the university’s Clare College to fire Kevin Price, a porter at the university.

Price, who was also a Labour councillor of Cambridge City Council, had resigned from the council and the Labour Party because he did not want to support a Liberal Democrat’s motion that “began with the words: ‘Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary individuals are non-binary.'”

“The inclusion of the first three sentences of this motion will send a chill down the spines of the many women who believe there is a conflict of rights and who want to be able to discuss those in a calm and evidenced-based way,” Price said in his resignation speech.

“[It is] foolish to pretend that there are not widely differing views in the current debate or that many people, especially women, are concerned about the impact on women’s sex-based rights from changes both in legislation and within society and who fear, not only that those rights are under threat, but that they are unable to raise legitimate questions and concerns without a hostile response,” he added.

The former councillor also criticised the public information pack produced with the motion, which says it “should use its own communication channels to counter transphobic reporting in the national media.”

Price called the pack unbelievable.

“Coverage of government consultations, responses, and issues around potential legislation is not transphobic but the role of journalism,” he said.

In July, Historian David Starkey lost his honorary fellowship at the Fitzwilliam College of Cambridge University after he made a controversial comment on a podcast.

In March, 2019, Cambridge University’s Faculty of Divinity rescinded a visiting fellowship offer made to Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson.

“[Cambridge] is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot,” a spokesperson for the university told the Guardian.

Peterson said the discussion of a visiting fellowship, which “would constitute an opportunity of clear mutual benefit,” started in Nov. 2018, when he visited the university and invited to speak to a full auditorium of students.

“Now the Divinity school has decided that signaling their solidarity with the diversity—inclusivity—equity mob trumps that opportunity—or so I presume,” the statement reads.

Peterson said the school announced their decision to rescind the offer on Twitter without informing him, “consciously making this a public issue.”

Peterson rose to global prominence after he posted a video on Youtube in Sept, 2016, criticizing bill C-16, which he argued was compelling speech.