Stephen Fry joins chorus criticising Cambridge free‑speech policy

I think it’s fair to say that some academics, students and alumni were not “respectful” towards Elizabeth Hobson and I last year, when we gave talks at Cambridge University – our 40 blog pieces on the matter are here. So I was interested to read this piece in today’s Sunday Times:

It is a simple question that some of the nation’s finest minds have wrestled with for weeks — should you be “respectful” of those whose views you oppose, or merely “tolerant”?

Over the next week 7,000 Cambridge academics will settle it by voting on the university’s controversial free-speech policy, which was brought in during lockdown.

The policy, backed by the vice-chancellor, would require Cambridge’s academics, students and visiting speakers to treat others and their opinions with “respect”.

But more than 100 academics revolted and backed a motion put forward by Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Gonville and Caius college, to change “respectful” to “tolerant”.

Supported by the actor Stephen Fry, who read English at Cambridge, and Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering, Ahmed fears the new code could be used to stifle views deemed to be “disrespectful” on subjects such as transgender rights, anti-vaccination, religion, race or climate change. They fear it could lead to academics who satirise certain views being sacked.

Ahmed said the new policy could be “very restricting”. “Do you think Richard Dawkins [the humanist academic] respects religion for instance?” If he does not then he could not be a professor at Cambridge under this policy. If I teach a class on religion, could I show Charlie Hebdo cartoons in my class? That would be disrespectful to someone.”

The policy was introduced after clashes over academic freedom. Last year, Cambridge withdrew an invitation of a fellowship at the faculty of divinity to Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor of psychology. Peterson had refused to comply with Canadian laws compelling him to use the gender neutral pronoun of an individual’s choice.

Last month, Cambridge students called for a “transphobic” Labour councillor to be sacked from his job as a porter at Clare college after he resigned from the city’s council in protest at a motion in support of transgender rights. Kevin Price refused to support a motion that began: “Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary.”

Among more than 100 academics and alumni opposing the free speech policy are the philosopher Simon Blackburn, the economist Diane Coyle, the statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter and the Liberal Democrat peer Julie Smith. Oxford academics, including the history professor and feminist Selina Todd, are supporting their Cambridge colleagues.

They say that Cambridge should defend academics’ right to mock and satirise the opinions of others and point out that not all opinions are worthy of respect.

“We should not be expected to respect patently false opinions concerning vaccination or climate change,” they say. “Nor should the university demand respect for all political or religious identities, from white nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism. But we must permit them to exist. That is exactly what ‘tolerance’ means.”

Academics are also being asked to vote on two other motions. One makes it harder to force university societies to retract invitations to speakers. The other restricts the circumstances in which the university itself can ban speakers. The result will be known on December 8.


‘Respect’? This is thought control
Doubtless for the best motives, a rather muddled insistence on automatic “respect” is being injected into Cambridge University’s free speech policy, writes Stephen Fry.

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.

There are many opinions, positions and points of view which I find I do not and cannot respect. That is surely true for all us.

Even if someone were to pull out a gun, point it at my head and demand respect for their opinion, I could not with any honesty offer it. Fear and dread would certainly elicit a trembling acquiescence — but real respect? That cannot be supplied to order. It comes from somewhere else.

To be forced to feel other than we do is manifestly an impossibility. Therefore what is really being asked is a pretence, a display of lip-service, which in a university whose reputation is founded on empirical and rational inquiry, open argument and free thought, is surely inimical.

Doubtless we can all hope for respectful attitudes in matters of debate and interpersonal exchange — much as we hope for friendly manners in all circumstances — but to burn respect into statutes and protocols is absurd, or worse. Such an impulse tips over the line into thought control.

A free mind is obliged to respect only the truth. There is so much passion and distress fomenting the debate on campus freedom and academic discussion that decisions are made and policies implemented on the basis of fear rather than reason or sense.

This has nothing to do with “sides” or particular issues. Think of the human attitude or political philosophy you believe to be among the most wicked and dangerous in the world. Do you consent to being forced to respect it?

Perhaps what is meant is that Cambridge 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.

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