Good news in today’s Times:
Cambridge University has been forced to drop rules requiring students, lecturers and visitors to “respect” opposing views after overwhelming opposition from academics.
In a vote crucial to the free speech issue and watched closely by other universities, dons successfully challenged a “vague and authoritarian” policy they feared would stifle debate and threaten staff with disciplinary action or sacking for being disrespectful.
The amended version will also make it almost impossible to “no platform” speakers by cancelling their invitation, a controversial practice condemned by ministers and other critics.
More than 1,200 academics — at least 77 per cent of those who voted yesterday afternoon — were in favour of the three amendments to the freedom of speech policy that the university wanted to introduce. It now urges speakers to “tolerate” rather than “respect” each others’ views.
The earlier version had been approved by the university’s council but Arif Ahmed, a senior philosophy lecturer, put forward the amendments that replaced the word respectful with the word tolerant and made it harder to disinvite speakers.
Supporters said being “respectful” to people such as anti-vaxers ran the risk of not being able to publicly criticise them for fear of causing offence.
Dr Ahmed told The Times that he was extremely pleased at the outcome of the vote. He said: “I think this process shows that the number of people in the university who are illiberal are a loud but small minority. The vast majority are fundamentally committed to free speech.”
Dr Ahmed said that he acted because of fears the original policy could lead to censorship of those who were viewed by accusers as disrespectful, which could limit teaching or research.
His longer-term concern was that the policy could be used against academics by those hoping to sack or discipline them.
Stephen Fry, a Cambridge graduate, had backed the campaign, saying: “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 enquiry, open argument and free thought, is surely inimical.”
Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor, who had been accused of trying to curtail freedom of expression on campus, also said he was pleased the issue had been resolved.
Professor Toope, who wrote to The Times last week denying that he was wedded to the concept of “respect” being included in the policy, 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.
“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.”
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