Lessons from a free-speech victory at Cambridge University

September 24, 2021 • 12:00 pm

In December of last year I reported (see also here) about how Cambridge University tried to pass a resolution mandating respect for differing views and “diverse identities” (bolding below is mine). This is just one of three resolutions that were similar:

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.

As I wrote, I was in good company opposing this resolution (I opposed not the identity part but the opinion part):

Similar restrictions appeared in two other paragraphs of the speech code, and irked writers like Stephen Fry and Nick Cohen, both of whom wrote editorials arguing that “respect” wasn’t the right word. For while one can respect an opponent as a human being to be treated civilly, there is no good reason to be respectful of opinions. Both Fry and Cohen emphasized that the operative word was “tolerance”: one can tolerate both opponents and their opinions—and argue with them if you don’t like the opinions—but you don’t have to give them respect.

And, as I reported, the resolutions were voted down by the University—by margins of between 4:1 and 7:1. This was a victory for tolerance and a defeat for “we must respect all views.” Now Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge, gives a bit of the backstory in a short piece on Spiked (click on screenshot below). And he gives two lessons that are worth trumpeting to all who fight for free speech and against creeping wokeness on campus.

Apparently, the three amendments mandating “respect for others’ opinions” were passed by the College Council, who dismissed the objections of some dons and other university members. This would have become University policy, then, had this not happened:

Many Cambridge dons were concerned about the policy and the threat it posed to academic freedom, though few were willing to say so in public. In any case, the council dismissed the few concerns that were raised in September 2020, without consultation. Rebel academics then had to campaign to force a vote of the whole university.

When that vote finally happened, by secret ballot, the result was a huge defeat for the university authorities: the vast majority voted against the council in the biggest turnout for decades.

The result was in itself evidence of the vast scale of self-censorship on campus. Clearly, concerns about the threats to our freedoms are widely felt, even if they are not widely voiced. And it’s not just a problem in Cambridge. A recent, large survey carried out by the University and College Union found that 35.5 per cent of academics are self-censoring.

I believe the proportion of American students who self-censor is much higher. A 2019 survey by the Heterodox Academy showed that “58.5% of students were somewhat or very reluctant to give their views on at least one of the five controversial topics.”

Self-censorship doesn’t apply with a secret ballot, giving rise to Ahmed’s first lesson. I can’t emphasize how important this is (emphasis is mine):

First, the Cambridge vote illustrated the power of anonymous voting. Academics who wouldn’t publicly voice support for liberal, pro-freedom policies at decision-making meetings might still support them in a secret ballot. If – as the figures suggest – a small and vociferous minority has cowed a liberal but risk-averse majority out of speaking its mind, secret ballots may break this minority’s power. Activist bullies might monopolise what is said out loud at a meeting, but if they can’t see how members vote, they can’t control what members decide. Every time a faculty votes on a change to the syllabus, every time a college votes on whether to invite a speaker, every time a students’ union chooses whether to affiliate to this or that political cause – these questions should be settled not by a show of hands, but by a secret ballot.

This doesn’t apply, however, to the running of student governments, as the students need to know how their representatives vote. That’s why no Congressional votes are secret.

And the second lesson, which we’ve seen at my own University:

Second, it is clear that the senior academics and administrators running most universities are faced with conflicting pressures from students, staff, funding bodies and central government. It is not surprising that in trying to balance these demands, even the most well-meaning vice-chancellors sometimes forget that free speech must be non-negotiable. One possible remedy would be for each university to appoint someone whose job it is never to forget the importance of free speech. Universities should each have their own free-speech officer, whose sole duty is to enforce compliance with the statutory duties on universities to promote free speech. If we cannot stop bureaucracy from growing, we can at least channel its energy in a benign direction.

One example I’ve used on my campus is ex-President Zimmer’s declaration that both the University itself and its academic units, like departments, are prohibited by the University’s Kalven Report from making official political, ideological, or moral statements. The reason is that an official statement in these areas will chill the ability of people like graduate students or untenured professors to oppose its views, much less discuss them. (This policy is of course rare in American colleges—it may be unique!)

Yet, many departments put up those statements on their websites, explicitly violating our own foundational free-speech principles. Despite efforts to have the statements removed (even though I agree with some of them!), they remain up, because, I suppose, there is also pressure on college administrators to not enforce university free-speech policy. I can imagine department heads saying to administrators: “Who are you to tell us what we can and cannot put on our department websites?” Well, the administrators should do exactly that with respect to anything that could chill speech. Conflicting pressures allows the university to explicitly declare these statements inappropriate, but then render the enforcement of that principle toothless. The result is that free speech has waned. No wonder we’ve fallen to #2 in FIRE’s free-speech rankings when we were #1 for so many years.

As Ahmed says, “free speech must be non-negotiable,” even when some parts of a university want to water it down.

h/t: Greg

16 thoughts on “Lessons from a free-speech victory at Cambridge University

  1. Glad to see this again. I just wrote a friend last night about how increasingly dismayed and depressed I am in academia’s censorious climate. I get official and officious email after email from my department and school about one woke thing after the next. They are now requiring various faculty in leadership roles involving hiring to receive unconscious bias training via our online training portal. On top of this, the constant online vitriol from those trying to get famous by denying that cancel culture exists is exhausting. And the fear! I’ve been advised not to tweet at all because the Demonic Far Left tried to smear me as someone who defends “race scientists”. The advice I got was from a friend to protect my career. But that’s exactly how this culture of intimidation works. The threat is real. Where is the academia that inspired me at 20? 24? Gone. It’s a lonely world being cast into silence. And I’m sick of it.

      1. This is actually where this stuff is discriminatory. A lot of this isn’t about free speech, worthy as it is of preservation. It is about the freedom of being to be a person who uses reason and critical thinking to form their views. Truth and reason is often offensive to those who hear it about their badly constructed arguments. Scientists are MADE THAT WAY. It discriminating against people because of their innate characteristics is wrong. Telling people who use reason to form their opinions that it is the wrong way to think is as discriminatory as homophobia and racism. It is picking on people for something about the way they are made.

    1. Academia should never ever cow to thought or speech control and that coming from officialdom can be one of the most insidious forms. Like all freedoms worth their name you have to fight for freedom of speech.

  2. Respect is one of those funny words. And there seem to be twoc camps for having respect. 1) it must be earned, 2) it is something that is given. In both cases it can be lost.

    I can argue that a particular position is a complete load of bollocks. I can be respectful whilst doing so, even forcibly so. And respectful at the same time.

    Now of course my opponent may not see it as being respectful but then that is life.

  3. I am not merely ambivalent but, to be frank, suspicious of the idea of appointing a “free speech officer” to add to the academic bureaucracy. It could be argued that the number of administrative sinecures has already grown more than enough. For example, consider the following office:
    UW School of Medicine, Office of Faculty Affairs

    Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs | Trish Kritek, MD, EdM |
    Assistant Dean for Well-Being | Anne Browning, PhD |
    Assistant Dean for Professionalism | Giana Davidson, MD, MPH |
    Director of URM Faculty Development | Kemi Doll, MD, MS |
    Program Manager of URM Faculty Development | Liz Sage, MPH |
    Project Manager | Lisa Pierce |

    What with officers for Professionalism, for Faculty Development, and for Well-Being, all we lack is an
    Associate Dean for Career Management, an Assistant Dean for Serenity, and a Program Manager for Good Bowel Movements.

    1. Furthermore, it will be quite easy to frame the Free Speech Officer’s role and staff it along the lines of ‘… believe in free speech BUT …’ Defending free speech is too important to outsource it to a bureaucrat.

    2. Free Speech Officer is another name for Censorship Officer or other examples of Orwellian Doublespeak such as Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Plenty. Also, let’s not forget Religious Police. The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation.

  4. After the result of that ballot, the race-baiter and Cambridge crankademic Priyamvada Gopal spent the next week crying about the result and poo-pooing the idea of free speech and freedom of expression.

    A few weeks later, Gopal appeared on an online panel with a bunch of other “academics”, crying about colleges/universities apparently not giving academics like her the freedom to criticise Israel as much as they would like.

    You couldn’t make it up.

  5. Jerry, if you’re not already aware of this, I’m eager to tell you.

    Arif Ahmed has a presence in the ‘atheist sphere’, as it were. He’s a credit to, and champion of secular humanism, atheism and theistic criticism. He has debated numerous high profile Christian apologists such as WLC and Gary Habermas. These debates and much more content of Ahmed is on YouTube. He’s very intelligent, erudite and just generally a charm to observe. I highly recommend him.

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