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University of Cambridge free speech vote: Tolerance wins over respect



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The University of Cambridge has voted against introducing a guideline that would have required students and staff to be “respectful” of other people’s opinion, favouring “tolerance” instead.

It follows a debate over freedom of expression, which drew comment from TV star Stephen Fry and universities minister Michelle Donelan.

University of Cambridge students from Clare College on graduation day
University of Cambridge students from Clare College on graduation day

The 7,000 members of Regent House, the university’s governing body, were asked to vote on changes to how free speech is upheld at Cambridge.

About a third of them did - and of those, 87 per cent favoured the amendment that calls for “tolerance”.

There had been concern that demanding respect implied approval, even of views that were patently false.

Other amendments to the freedom of speech guidelines mean the university must also allow controversial speakers to air their views and events to held, unless they are likely to break the law.

The results were revealed today (Wednesday) after voting closed yesterday.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, said: "I welcome the result of the vote by the Regent House today which is an emphatic reaffirmation of free speech in our university. The university will now implement the amended statement and this marks the conclusion of the democratic decision-making process on this matter.

“I would like to thank my colleagues who proposed the amendments that have now been agreed by the university’s governing body.

Prof Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Prof Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

"Freedom of speech is a right that sits at the heart of the university. This statement is a robust defence of that right. The university will always be a place where anyone can express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, and where those views can be robustly challenged.

“The statement also makes it clear that is unacceptable to censor, or disinvite, speakers whose views are lawful but may be seen as controversial.

“Rigorous debate is fundamental to the pursuit of academic excellence and the University of Cambridge will always be a place where freedom of speech is not only protected, but strongly encouraged.”

Debate was sparked after an original recommendation said students, staff and visitors should be able to “express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of disrespect or discrimination” and be “respectful of the diverse identities of others”.

Writing in the Sunday Times, alumnus Mr Fry 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.

“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.”

Senate House at the University of Cambridge
Senate House at the University of Cambridge

The minister of state for universities, Michelle Donelan MP, expressed support for amending the wording to tolerance.

Proposing the amendment to the initial wording, Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy, said: “‘Respect’ as used here may be taken to imply admiration or approval. We should not be expected to respect all opinions or identities that the law permits, eg patently false views concerning vaccination or climate change. We should however permit them to exist. That is exactly what ‘tolerance’ means.”

The amendment replacing the word “disrepect” with “intolerance” and the word “respectful” with “tolerant” was passed by 1,378 votes (86.9 per cent) to 208.

The second amendment under discussion concerned the university’s speaker programme.

Eighty per cent voted of incorporating lines that said “any speaker who has been invited to speak at a meeting or other event, on university premises or at the student union, must not be stopped from doing so unless: they are likely to express unlawful speech, or their attendance would lead the host organisation to breach other legal obligations, and no reasonably practicable steps can be taken to reduce these risks”.

A third amendment on events sought to rein in “overly permissive” and “dangerously vague” terminology describing when the university could halt controversial events.

The original wording included examples such as the “expression of views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are the views of proscribed groups or organisations” as grounds for stopping an event, but said the university “was not limited” by such grounds.

In its place, securing 77.8 per cent of the vote was the guideline: “The university may only restrict speaker events given a reasonable belief that such events are likely to involve speech that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university. In addition, the university may reasonably regulate speaker events to ensure that they do not disrupt the ordinary activities of the university.

“These narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression are not intended ever to apply in a way that is inconsistent with the university’s commitment to the completely free and open discussion of ideas.”

The Amendments in full (changes between original and approved amendments marked in bold)

Amendment 1

Proposed amendment 1 is as follows:

The aim of this amendment is to make the University Statement on Freedom of Speech clearer and more liberal. ‘Respect’ as used here may be taken to imply admiration or approval. We should not be expected to respect all opinions or identities that the law permits, e.g. patently false views concerning vaccination or climate change. We should however permit them to exist. That is exactly what ‘tolerance’ means.

Amendment:

Change paragraph 2 of the University Statement on Freedom of Speech proposed in the Grace from:

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.

to:

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. The University also expects its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination.

Amendment 2

Proposed amendment 2 is as follows:

The aim of this amendment to the University Statement on Freedom of Speech is to incorporate the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2019 Guidance on the Section 43 duty. It is important to be explicit about this, because the more clearly the University sets out that it will not tolerate this kind of censorship the less likely it is to happen, and the less likely it is that concerns about its happening will stop University societies from inviting controversial speakers.

Amendment:

Change paragraph 6 of the University Statement on Freedom of Speech proposed in the Grace from:

An active speaker programme is fundamental to the academic and other activities of the University and staff and students are encouraged to invite a wide range of speakers and to engage critically but courteously with them. This Statement and the Code provide the only mechanism by which the University can cancel or impose conditions on meetings or events where this action is deemed necessary as a result of the event’s subject matter and/or speaker(s). This is to ensure that the use of University premises is not inappropriately denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with their beliefs or views or the policy or objectives of a body (with the exception of proscribed groups or organisations) of which they are a member. However, all speakers should anticipate that their views might be subject to robust debate, critique and challenge.

to:

An active speaker programme is fundamental to the academic and other activities of the University and staff and students are encouraged to invite a wide range of speakers and to engage critically but courteously with them. This Statement and the Code provide the only mechanism by which the University can cancel or impose conditions on meetings or events where this action is deemed necessary as a result of the event’s subject matter and/or speaker(s). This is to ensure that the use of University premises is not inappropriately denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with their beliefs or views or the policy or objectives of a body (with the exception of proscribed groups or organisations) of which they are a member.

The University’s policy, in line with its duty under Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, is that any speaker who has been invited to speak at a meeting or other event, on University premises or at the Student Union, must not be stopped from doing so unless: they are likely to express unlawful speech, or their attendance would lead the host organisation to breach other legal obligations, and no reasonably practicable steps can be taken to reduce these risks. However, all speakers should anticipate that their views might be subject to robust debate, critique and challenge.

Amendment 3

Proposed amendment 3 is as follows:1

This amendment to the University Statement on Freedom of Speech2 addresses the following concerns: (i) that the words ‘include, but are not limited to’ are overly permissive; (ii) that the first bullet point is quoted from a part of the Prevent duty that has been ruled illegal; (iii) that this language is in any case dangerously vague; (iv) that ‘welfare’ is vague and capacious. It addresses them by removing the material that causes these problems and replacing it with a clear, simple and liberal text from the ‘Chicago Statement’ that many US universities, including Columbia and Princeton, have already adopted.

Amendment:

Change paragraph 8 of the University Statement on Freedom of Speech proposed in the Grace from:

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.

to:

The University will not unreasonably either refuse to allow events to be held on its premises or impose special or unreasonable or onerous 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.

The University may only restrict speaker events given a reasonable belief that such events are likely to involve speech that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate speaker events to ensure that they do not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.

These narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression are not intended ever to apply in a way that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to the completely free and open discussion of ideas.

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



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