Nick Cohen and Stephen Fry on Cambridge Uni’s weaselly free-speech policy

November 30, 2020 • 11:15 am

Two of my favorite Brits, Nick Cohen and Stephen Fry, have both published pieces—in The Spectator and Sunday Times respectively decrying Cambridge University’s speech code and describing new attempts to reform it. You can access Cohen’s piece by clicking on the screenshot below, while Fry’s is largely behind a paywall. (Judicious inquiry might yield you a copy of Fry’s article.)

The Spectator:


Sunday Times:

What happened is that in March, Cambridge issued what Cohen calls a “woozy and authoritarian” update on their freedom-of-speech policy, which you can read here.

There are several problems with that statement. The most pressing, and one that has been subject to pushback from Cohen, Fry, and a group of Cambridge academics who are proposing a revision of the update, is that the demand should be not for respect for opposing views, but “tolerance” for them. Emphasis in the Cambridge statement below is mine:

The University of Cambridge, as a world-leading education and research institution, is fully committed to the principle, and to the promotion, of freedom of speech and expression. The University’s core values are ‘freedom of thought and expression’ and ‘freedom from discrimination’. The University fosters an environment in which all of its staff and students can participate fully in University life, and feel able to question and test received wisdom, and to express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of disrespect or discrimination. 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, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression. The University also expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination. While debate and discussion may be robust and challenging, all speakers have a right to be heard when exercising their right to free speech within the law.

Both Cohen and Fry glom onto this statement, as “tolerance” is what we need, not “respect” for opinions that may be odious. Does one “respect” the opinion that female genital mutilation is okay, or that Muslims should be banned from immigrating? Or that vaccinations are dangerous and there’s no global warming? No, one tolerates the views and their proponents insofar as one argues with them, civilly but also passionately. But such views deserve no respect.


At its heart [the skirmish between the statement and its critics] is a distinction with a difference worth fighting over: the line between ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’. Tolerance is an old liberal virtue that is tougher than it looks. After the devastation brought by the wars of religion, the early Enlightenment decided, in the words of John Locke, that ‘the civil magistrate has no jurisdiction over souls’.

To tolerate one’s opponents meant that you did not ban them or punish them for their religious or political beliefs. But that was all. You remained free to offend and challenge them. You most certainly had no obligation to ‘respect’ ideas you regarded as ignorant or dangerous or both.

The demand for respect is the demand to bite your tongue and not to argue against what you believe to be wrong. To respect people, groups, ideologies or institutions is to bow down before them, accept them on their own terms, and refrain from criticism. No wonder gangsters demand it.

As Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, says, in a free university, no one has the ‘right to demand that we be respectful towards all beliefs and practices: on the contrary, we have a right, in some cases practically a duty, to satirise and to mock them’.

I’m glad Cohen mentioned mockery, a powerful weapon against nonsense, and which is clearly not respectful but sometimes better than simple counterargument. (Indeed, mockery could be seen as a “counterargument” that emphasizes the silliness of your opponents’ arguments.)


A demand for respect is like a demand for a laugh, or demands for love, loyalty and allegiance. They cannot be given if not felt.

There are many opinions, positions and points of view which I find I do not and cannot respect. That is surely true for all us.

Even if someone were to pull out a gun, point it at my head and demand respect for their opinion, I could not with any honesty offer it. Fear and dread would certainly elicit a trembling acquiescence — but real respect? That cannot be supplied to order. It comes from somewhere else.

To be forced to feel other than we do is manifestly an impossibility. Therefore what is really being asked is a pretence, a display of lip-service, which in a university whose reputation is founded on empirical and rational inquiry, open argument and free thought, is surely inimical.

Doubtless we can all hope for respectful attitudes in matters of debate and interpersonal exchange — much as we hope for friendly manners in all circumstances — but to burn respect into statutes and protocols is absurd, or worse. Such an impulse tips over the line into thought control.

A free mind is obliged to respect only the truth. There is so much passion and distress fomenting the debate on campus freedom and academic discussion that decisions are made and policies implemented on the basis of fear rather than reason or sense.

There are other issues as well, and a big group of academics has forced Cambridge to take a faculty vote on three proposed amendments of the free-speech statement (see proposed revisions #1, #2, and #3). All these proposed changes are sensible and salubrious. Voting will end on December 7.

There’s one more statement that stuck out to me: the reasons why speakers can be deplatformed:

The University will not unreasonably either refuse to allow events to be held on its premises or impose special conditions upon the running of those events. The lawful expression of controversial or unpopular views will not in itself constitute reasonable grounds for withholding permission for a meeting or event. Grounds for refusal, or the imposition of special conditions, would include, but are not limited to, a reasonable belief that the meeting or event is likely to:

include the expression of views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are the views of proscribed groups or organisations;

incite others to commit violent or otherwise unlawful acts;

include the expression of views that are unlawful because they are discriminatory or harassing;

pose a genuine risk to the welfare, health, or safety of members, students, or employees of the University, to visitors, or to the general public; or

give rise to a breach of the peace or pose an unacceptable security risk.

The last three points in particular look to me like an especially slippery slope, which the critics, when proposing their revision, single out as “restrictive, vague, and now illegal”. Even the proscription against “drawing people into terrorism” is problematic. Does praise for Hamas count like that?

At the end of his piece, Cohen calls out both the American Right and Left and warns of another slippery slope: that of “respect”:

We are in our own religious wars now. The US right is so convinced Democrats are infidels it cannot admit the truth that it lost an election. The version of the left formed by the social justice movement believes in shaming and banning with the fervour of a pre-Enlightenment Calvinist. You can see why tolerance is out of fashion at Cambridge. The danger lies in the promotion of the slippery concept of respect by a university, which once insisted on precision. When I asked Arif Ahmed why he was mobilising academics against respect, he quoted the argument of the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn: ‘The word seems to span a spectrum, from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference.’

Its multiple meanings suited ideologues wanting to impose conformity. ‘People might start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.’ At the extreme it reaches the terminus of, ‘unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions.’


h/t: John, Dom

29 thoughts on “Nick Cohen and Stephen Fry on Cambridge Uni’s weaselly free-speech policy

  1. Can anyone write like Fry? It’s the equivalent of listening to music — he simply nails it from the heights to the depths in the course of what, 50 words?

    1. He’s definitely one of my heroes, and has been ever since I first saw “A Bit of Fry & Laurie” way back in, I think, 1990. He’s able to have been close friends with Hitch and also to hang out with Prince Charles (!) and able to get along with nearly everyone…but always ready with brilliant and biting wit (though he turns that against himself at least as often as at others).

  2. The interesting thing is if we change “with respect” to “with civility”, groups on the extremes I suspect will have problems.

    Is having civil disobedience at a presentation, say a “sit in”, in any way civil or having respect? Asking for a friend.

      1. I agree … to some degree. Take FGM, I’m confident we agree this is more than an undesirable practice.

        To what lengths would it be reasonable to go to stop it:
        Civil discourse
        Passionate discourse
        Public protests (with permission)
        Protests without permission
        Threating violence
        Minor violence (jostlng etc)
        Actual violence
        Bombing and the ilk

        We see these played out in politics at all scales to varying degrees.

  3. Why must we be expected to respect certain viewpoints? Was the Nazi viewpoint that Jews were less than animals worthy of respect. Should we have respected the views of apartheid held in South Africa? There are so many examples that can be brought up, demanding respect is a viewpoint that deserves no respect.

    1. Nazi views will continue to be disrespected, of course. The woke goal here is to set up a double standard in which any criticism of them violates the rules, but any criticism they do is just peachy.

      1. Ha ha. Exactly.

        I came here straight from reading PZ Myers’ article on this issue. The lack of self awareness is astounding. We have this quote:

        I mean, really, asking people to treat others with respect is not an onerous demand

        It’s in the opening paragraph of an article entitled “Richard Dawkins loses the plot”.

  4. If I were required to respect any of this voting fraud coming out of Trump’s mouth? I am not even sure why we tolerate it after 3 months non stop and every claim and lawsuit is thrown out. The time is past to put up or shut up. If you present no evidence why should it be tolerated? There must be a limit to this free speech manure.

  5. … question and test received wisdom, and to express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of disrespect or discrimination. 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, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression. The University also expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination.

    My initial take on this was that all the talk about “respecting” ideas and opinions is really just cover for and introduction to the main point: failing to “respect identities” is discriminatory and thus forbidden. This is mostly about the transgender. They’re not really trying to protect unpopular beliefs in the name of civility; they’re trying to shut down criticism of Gender Identity in the name of respect for other people — those who claim their very existence derives from it. It’s harder to say such critiques are “intolerant.” That’s a higher bar.

    I could be wrong. Cambridge might be aiming at the old idea of No Right, No Wrong, Just Different for all sorts of beliefs, including Creationism and homeopathy. But the seeming refusal to explain and say that sounds suspicious.

    1. Possibly, but there’s a pretty big distinction between intentionally calling a trans person by the wrong gender pronoun (jerk move, happy to see it considered socially unacceptable), and doing research, publishing, or discussing published research results that may bear on the question of why there’s been a sharp uptick in gender dysphoria among young girls.

      If Cambridge et al. wants to tell people not to do the former, then that’s IMO a minor issue of essentially manners and reasonable campus behavior. Indeed, I’d say that doing the first repeatedly after you’ve been told not to by the victim easily falls into the ‘harassment’ category already – i.e. without any extra treatise on respect or gender being needed.

      But if by ‘failing to respect identities’ you mean Cambridge is hoping to prevent people from doing or discussing the latter if it implies there’s a social aspect to some trans cases, then no, I absolutely disagree with Cambridge et al. putting such a restriction on their staff or students.

      1. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. An article in Cambridge News discusses the pushback to a letter written by feminist philosophy professor Kathleen Stock which “ calls for UK universities to end the “inappropriately close relationship between LGBT charity Stonewall and UK universities by Stonewall Diversity Champions programme”.”

        She describes the “intimidating atmosphere” she claims Stonewall produces through its training. This training “advises against inviting any speaker to a university who would deny ‘that trans people are the gender they say they are’,” stating this is a violation of free academic debate. It describes the training as giving “no clear definition of what would count as ‘transphobic teaching’.”
        To her, Stonewall’s definition of transphobia as “any denial/ refusal to accept transgender identity” renders academics unable to analyse the concept of gender identity in an academic way.

        The rebuttal from Cambridge University wasn’t that of course academic discussions on gender identity are allowed, but that transgender people are vulnerable.

        ”We support the rights of colleagues to free speech, and safe debate, but until all LGBTQIA+ people can live, work and learn in our universities without fear or intimidation, it is vital that we stand up and say that we support the rights of trans and other gender-diverse people to be who they are.”

        “To be who they are” doesn’t mean using their preferred pronouns. It means Trans Women are Women and disagreement is transphobia. It’s at Oxford, too.

        Here’s a link to the article:

  6. I agree completely that respect cannot be mandated, unless one bastardizes the meaning of the word beyond recognition. I think it would be better to ask for courtesy, at least as a starting point – but I guess that’s pretty vague, and of course, comedy and other mockery isn’t always polite, so perhaps that’s a bit much to ask. I guess toleration really is the right word. Politeness would be nice as a baseline, though.

  7. It wasn’t apparent what they mean by (dis) “respect” and “discrimmination”, when they are also committed to “robust and challenging” “debate and discussion”. Cohen notices this in his article, and says “[w]hat did it mean? […] the proposed changes might have been innocuous. Cambridge academics weren’t so sure”.

    I suspect, the changes are an attempt to balance a rather traditional understanding of freedom of expression against woke demands of censorship, whilst also trying to provide woke “safe spaces”. Critical race theory has engulfed American universities, meanwhile a kind of “critical gender theory” has recently occupied British intellectual life. It would not surprise me if it turns out to be about trans* issues. “Respect” could mean that preferred pronouns are used. To not “discrimminate” could be about accepting trans* individuals as what they identify with in sex-segregated domains. I do not know this; it’s a hunch.

  8. People are entitled to a presumption of respect; ideas are entitled merely to tolerance (and to only so much respect as they’re able earn on their merits). Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is disrespectful to people to pretend to respect their views when you honestly believe those views to be meritless.

  9. “Respect” is a Motte and Bailey word.

    If challenged on it – “respect just means being polite”

    When nobody is looking – “I’m a cop and you will respect mah authoriteh!!”

  10. By the way

    I’ve been noticing, in the signature section of emails, a line like this :

    “Pronouns : they/them”


    The first time I saw it I thought it was like a reminder of what pronouns are.

  11. Can “a view” be unlawful? I think not. Expressing certain views might. Inciting a riot has been illegal for a very long time.

    Oops I can edit this text but not that I logged in with a typo in email address!

  12. Arif Ahmed – I love that guy! I stole the Betting on the Past idea from him. Which reminds me, I still owe Tim Reichert 5 bucks. Donate your winnings to charity and I’ll triple them, Tim! Inspired by Jerry’s donated book for Hellen Keller International.

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