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University of Cambridge votes on free speech policy amid debate over ‘respect’ versus ‘tolerance’

Voting is under way at the University of Cambridge to decide whether its new free speech policy will require “respect” or “tolerance” in the face of differing views.

TV star and author Stephen Fry, a university alumnus, has weighed into the debate, as has the minister of state for universities.

Senate House
Senate House

The university’s governing body, the Regent House, comprising 7,000 members, began voting on the issue last week, after the university’s executive body, the council, proposed to update its statement on freedom of speech.

The new wording proposed says that university staff and students will be able to express ideas within the bounds of the law “without fear of disrespect,” while remaining “respectful” of differing opinions and the identities of others.

But more than 100 senior university staff have backed an amendment proposed by Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy, which replaces references to respect with tolerance, asking instead that people can speak freely “without fear of intolerance”.

The vote closes on December 8 and the result is expected to be announced the next day.

The minister of state for universities, Michelle Donelan MP, has expressed support for the amendment to tolerance, and Stephen Fry has spoken out about his concerns over “demand for respect”,

In a statement published in The Sunday Times, Mr Fry said he does not doubt that the “rather muddled insistence on automatic ‘respect’” is being included in the policy “for the best motives”.

But he said: “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.”

He went on to say: “Perhaps what is meant is that Cambridge University wants decorum and politeness. These are codes, much like a dress code, to which any reasonable person might be expected to conform. But please do not tell us what to think and feel.”

A leading member of the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, which is supporting the amendment to tolerance, is Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering who said the word choice of respect, alongside other changes being proposed, would “undermine academic freedom”.

He said “at stake is tenure itself,” which he described as “the freedom to question and receive wisdom” and “the freedom to question existing ideas without putting ourselves at risk of being fired”.

He said he feared the policy would become “a weapon that will be used in the culture wars” and the effect “is not going to be progressive, it is going to be regressive”.

“It’s our duty to tolerate colleagues even when they say things that we consider foolish, when we find their views offensive we should point that out politely. We should not be running to the vice chancellor asking him to censor them,” he said.

Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope, chair of the University Council, said on his blog that he cannot take sides in the debate, but that the university first took the decision to codify a policy on free speech in 2016 after a growth in legislation “placing additional responsibilities on universities”.

He said the purpose of a free speech statement is to “enshrine core values while recognising the need to maintain civility in debate, whether amongst staff, students and visitors or within these groups”.

And he said it was not a surprise that the latest proposals have prompted debate and counter-proposals given the “complexity” of the issues involved.

“I can take satisfaction from the fact that this open, democratic process is occurring. The very existence of this discussion demonstrates to me that free speech is alive and well at Cambridge,” he said.

A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge said: “The university is fully committed to the principle and promotion of freedom of speech and expression, and has a long tradition of seeking to safeguard them.

“Revisions to the university’s existing Statement on Freedom of Speech were proposed earlier this year for the reasons set out in the Council’s Report on the topic.

“The University Council received three amendments from members of the Regent House, the university’s governing body, each proposing changes to individual paragraphs of the revised statement, and agreed to submit them to separate ballots.

“This is a matter for the Regent House to determine; the university has a democratic system of governance and this vote is an expression of that.”

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