‘Victory for free speech’: Campaigners say ‘common sense has prevailed’ after Cambridge academics vote down bid to force them to be ‘respectful’ of diverse views

  • Cambridge dons opted to support ‘tolerance’ of differing opinions over ‘respect’
  • They backed amendments making it harder for speakers to be ‘no-platformed’ 
  • Revised guidelines ensure right to express ‘controversial or unpopular opinions’
  • Campaigners have hailed the vote as a free speech and ‘common sense’ ‘victory’

Campaigners have hailed a ‘victory for free speech after academics at Cambridge University rejected demands that views remain ‘respectful’.

Dons opted instead to support ‘tolerance’ of differing opinions instead of ‘respect’ – a term which made critics fearful that it could crush freedom of expression.

The vote yesterday has resulted in widespread praise as campaigners claim ‘common sense prevailed’.   

Index on Censorship, a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide, said there was ‘much relief’ at the organisation after the results of the vote were announced. 

They called it ‘a vote in support of free expression’ and said ‘respect’ is something that should be ‘earned’ and not forced. 

Index for Censorship spokeswoman Jemimah Steinfeld said: ‘We as an organisation were very happy to hear Cambridge University has voted on the right side of freedom of expression.

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

 ‘It is a victory for commone sense. It did not make sense to require people to repect people’s views. Respect is something that is earned. 

‘From a free speech perspective if you set the bar that high you are inviting a lot of potential pitfalls and problems when it comes to upholding Cambridge, which among other institutions is one of the faces of intellectual curiosity and robust debate in the UK and in the world. 

‘You are inviting a much more censorial environment. It shouldnt be about respect, it should be about tolerance. 

‘These words have very different implications, and we are pleased the vote went in favour of toleration.’

Philosophy fellow Dr Arif Ahmed, a senior lecturer who spearheaded the campaign to amend the university’s freedom of speech policy, also praised the victory for free 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.

He told The Times: ‘I think this process shows that the number of people in the university who are illiberal are a loud but small minority. 

‘The vast majority are fundamentally comitted to free speech.’

He was also praised by The Free Speech Union, of which he sits on the Advisory Council. 

The group said Cambridge had now ‘restored its reputation as a defender of academic free speech.’

Toby Young, the head of the organisation, told Mail Online: ‘It’s a terrific victory for free speech. It shows how unpopular the efforts of university administrators are to circumscribe what their academic staff are allowed to say.

‘Unfortunately, at most universities these anti-free speech policies are imposed on the staff without their having any say in the matter.

‘The Free Speech Union supported the efforts of Arif Ahmed, James Orr and others at Cambridge to see off this attack on free speech and we will support the efforts of any other academics.’

More than 1,200 Cambridge academics backed the amendments to the university’s proposed free speech policy in a victory hailed as a ‘landslide’.  

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

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’. 

‘Victory for free speech as Cambridge plan defeated,’ former MP and Chair of the Visit England Advisory Board, Nick De Bois wrote on Twitter

The group said Cambridge had now ‘restored its reputation as a defender of academic free speech’ 

Index on Censorship, a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide, said there was ‘much relief’ at the organisation after the results of the vote were announced 

Comedian Andrew Doyle called the outcome an ‘extremely positive development’

MP Andrew Murrison who serves south west Wiltshire also commented on the vote

The Cambridge University Liberals Group also praised the outcome on social media

Oxford Professor John Tasioulas, the Director of the University’s Institute for Ethics in AI, commented: ‘Good to see it was an overwhelming vote’

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 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.

Oxford Professor John Tasioulas, the Director of the University’s Institute for Ethics in AI, commented: ‘Good to see it was an overwhelming vote.’  

‘Victory for free speech as Cambridge plan defeated,’ former MP and Chair of the Visit England Advisory Board, Nick De Bois also wrote on Twitter. 

‘Taking a stand for free speech – thankfully good sense prevailed at Cambridge University.’    

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’. 

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.

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

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.’ 

Cambridge University Liberals posted on social media: ‘We are so pleased to see that an overwhelming number of fellows have backed the free speech amendments. 

‘Freedom of speech is at the heart of any free society, and is especially crucial in the university; Cambridge now sets an example that other institutions can follow.’

… 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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