Cambridge University tries once again to enforce “respect” in its free-speech regulations

June 17, 2022 • 10:45 am

In September of last year I reported about the apparent resolution of a controversy about free speech at Cambridge University that had been going on for two years (see earlier posts here and here). The controversy was about the balance between free speech, which Cambridge purports to support, and “respect” for others which they wanted to mandate. Here’s one version of a resolution the university wanted to pass (my bolding):

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.

Many people including me opposed this bill because of the implied chilling of speech that might offend others (lack of “respect”). In the end, the University voted it down by a huge margin. A victory for free speech?

Not so fast! According to this article from Inside Higher Ed (click to read for free), Cambridge is back with a similar if not identical proposal

I haven’t found a copy of the new proposal, but the free-speech regulations already in place are here. An excerpt:

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 intolerance or discrimination. In exercising their right to freedom of expression, the University expects its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the differing opinions of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression.

Note the requested “tolerant,” which is okay by me so long as it means “don’t yell over other people or punch them if you disagree with them.” Note too that the University is FULLY COMMITTED to free speech and expression. The kerfuffle over the past two years was not about tolerance but about adding stuff about “respect”. That gives the regulations a completely different meaning, and was the pivot word that killed the revised resolution. Here are the two most relevant meanings of “respect” from the Oxford English Dictionary (their emphasis):

Deferential regard or esteem felt or shown towards a person, thing, or quality.

The condition or state of being esteemed, honoured, or highly thought of. Frequently with in, esp. in to hold in (high, etc.) respect.

There’s no way I can esteem, honor, or think highly of those who promulgate nonsense.

Clearly, though, Cambridge just can’t give up the idea that free speech and “respect” are compatible. But there’s no reason I should respect Donald Trump or the Proud Boys, even if I do defend their right to promulgate stupidity. Here’s what Inside Higher Ed reported yesterday

The University of Cambridge’s incoming leader could become immediately embroiled in a free speech row, with a number of academics opposing a new “mutual respect” policy.

A consultation has been held on a second draft of the document that aims to “prevent inappropriate behavior in the workplace” alongside a new grievance policy that outlines how complaints will be dealt with.

While both documents stress that they should be read in conjunction with the university’s free speech statement, critics said they represent management trying to restrict speech beyond its legal responsibilities.

And, for crying out loud, they’re back two years later trying to change “tolerate” to “respect” again!

The policy’s aim is to create “a safe, welcoming and inclusive community which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and courtesy,” and it states, “There is no place for any form of bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, or victimization in our community.”

That’s fine, but that’s not the same thing as showing “disrespect”.

But Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, said “respect” was the wrong choice of word, particularly as this terminology was removed from the free speech statement in favor of “tolerate” after a vote in the university’s governing body, Regent House.

“It is unreasonable to expect atheists to respect the views of religious believers, or to expect climate change activists to respect the work of earth scientists who are trying to make mining or oil drilling more efficient, or to expect campaigners for social justice to respect law professors who advise banks how to avoid regulation. What is reasonable is to expect members of the university to treat each other with tolerance and courtesy,” Anderson said.

He added that the draft policy “reads as if it has been adapted from a corporate HR manual” and does not consider the complexity of the university’s structures, which includes emeritus staff and visiting professors as well as those who work directly for the colleges.

I can’t help but put in a quote here from Mencken:

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

But it gets worse: there appears to be some “compulsory training” that goes along with this proposal (my emphasis):

Visitors, suppliers and others will be expected to behave in a manner that is consistent with the code of behavior outlined in the policy, but Anderson said it was unclear how this would be enforced in reality.

Ahmed added that he had “grave concerns” about the compulsory training element that would be introduced for all staff on areas such as diversity, which he claimed had “proven to be useless.”

There’s new leadership at Cambridge, and they apparently haven’t learned from the big failure two years ago (my emphasis):

A previous version of the same document was withdrawn in May 2021, and shortly afterward, Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope announced his early departure from his position. He will be replaced on an interim basis starting in October by Anthony Freeling, outgoing president of Hughes Hall, Cambridge, just as the final versions of the new policies are likely to come to Regent House for a vote.

Free speech concerns are likely to be a key feature of Freeling’s brief six-month tenure, with the government looking to pass its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

A Cambridge spokesman said the policy was clear that it could not be used to undermine the university’s statement on freedom of speech, and this point had been emphasized to those concerned.

Why can’t the Cambridge administration just give up on this? Opposition to the previous “respect” replacement was said to be between four to one and seven to one. Nobody wants this change, and nevertheless the admin persists. They need to learn that enforcing “respect” in discourse cannot be harmonized with Cambridge’s free speech policy, for if you give someone offense with your words, they can and will claim that you’re not respecting them.

But saying that “you don’t respect me” is no more of an argument than “I’m offended”, and doesn’t belong in any regulations about free speech.

16 thoughts on “Cambridge University tries once again to enforce “respect” in its free-speech regulations

  1. Given its emphatic rejection last time, one wonders who in the university is continuing to push for this, and what they think they’re doing: are they just bone-headedly refusing to give up, or is there some longer-term game they’re playing?

  2. I can respect the *right* of a person to hold a particular view, but I don’t need to respect the view itself. Views that are nonsense do not deserve respect. Must I respect the *person* who holds nonsensical views? Most of the time I can respect that person’s right to exist. But sometimes it’s appropriate to withhold even that limited sort of respect—as for Hitler or Bin Laden. So, it’s best to keep “respect” out of university mission statements, lest they come to demand respect for the unrespectable.

  3. They can’t give it up because they are looking for a way to stifle opinions that they don’t like, and, failing that, to provide a mechanism for persecuting those who voice them.

  4. Respect is a form of tribute that the strong exact from the weak. It’s how gang hierarchies are enforced: whom you have to respect and whom you don’t. At the very bottom it’s just a way of figuring out who’s the alpha. A college basketball player punched his coach in the face for allegedly not showing the player the respect he felt entitled to.

    Seen this way, enforcement of “respect” indicates that university is composed of and is administered by thugs.

  5. I wonder if reintroducing the term — and the practice of — “civility” might be of any use?

    1. That’s a great article, thanks for the link. From the article:

      Respect for persons is a central concept in many ethical theories …Kant was the first major Western philosopher to put respect for persons, including oneself as a person, at the very center of moral theory, and his insistence that persons are ends in themselves with an absolute dignity who must always be respected has become a core ideal of modern humanism and political liberalism.

      This is how I interpret Cambridge’s use of “respect,” not as holding someone or their views in high esteem.

      1. Well, if you don’t mind, I’ll adhere to the Oxford English Dictionary instead of a quotation from Kant. Clearly, two years ago the vast majority of Cambridge people did, too. Sorry, but I can’t bring myself to say I respect Donald Trump or the Proud Boys. And can you say in all sincerity that you respect Charles Manson or Hitler?
        Say it: “I respect Hitler.”

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