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.