The Cambridge Union, a prominent site of debate in CambridgeOm285

The University has defended the place of ‘safe spaces’ at Cambridge in written evidence to a parliamentary committee, saying it “supports unequivocally the right of students to meet in safe spaces”.

Cambridge was one of four universities which submitted written evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into free speech in universities, alongside Edinburgh, Sheffield Hallam, and London South Bank. While Sheffield Hallam acknowledged the safe space policy of its students’ union, Cambridge was the only university to defend safe spaces explicitly.

In written evidence published yesterday, the University noted and defended the existence and use of safe spaces by CUSU’s autonomous campaigns, including some meetings of the women’s campaign, BME campaign, CUSU LGBT+, and the Disabled Students’ Campaign, and by FLY, the network for BME women and non-binary students.

Explained Safe spaces, no-platforming, and trigger warnings

Safe spaces, no-platforming and trigger warnings are often grouped together in debates about campus politics, but are all distinct policies. What do they mean?

Safe spaces: Areas which are explicitly reserved to ensure that any members feel confident they will not be exposed to harm, harassment, or discrimination. This can include designating a physical spaces, such as a meetings, as ‘safe’. They aim to limit distress experienced by students, usually those of minority status. Often, safe spaces in Cambridge are limited to certain groups, such as women and non-binary students.

No-platforming: No-platforming refers to an attempt to de-invite a speaker because of their views or positions. If a speaker’s invitation is revoked, this is said to remove their platform to speak. This is usually decided by the organisers or venue owners, which at a university can include a range of stakeholders including the central body, but is more often the decision of students’ unions at most universities. In Cambridge, no-platforming attempts have had mixed success, with several events being held in spite of protests.

Trigger warnings: Often also called content notes, trigger warnings are statements before or at the start of any form of content – such as videos, lectures, or articles – warning that potentially distressing content is included. They are designed to prevent people from unexpectedly seeing things that they may find upsetting or offensive. Some Cambridge lectures are accompanied by trigger warnings if they contain discussion of topics such as extreme sexual violence.

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The University said it hopes “that these opportunities help students to develop the confidence to express themselves outside of the safe spaces, and continue to emphasise the importance of this as a vital part of participation in a university education.”

While stressing its commitment to ‘freedom of thought and expression’ and ‘freedom from discrimination’, the University’s evidence attempted to clarify the differences between safe spaces and no-platforming, saying: “We believe that the concepts of safe spaces and of no-platforming are distinct.”

“However, if no-platforming (such as preventing others from attending or expressing their views within the law) occurs within a safe space environment, this could be contrary to the University’s statement on freedom of speech and may even be illegal,” it added.

The University’s statement comes in the wake of controversy surrounding the government’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), which has been tasked with ensuring free speech at British universities. Former board member Toby Young was driven to resign this week after widespread criticism in the higher education sector, including an open letter from almost 100 Cambridge academics which labelled him “a serial purveyor of misogynist, homophobic, racist and able-ist commentary”.


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No-platforming has been a controversial topic at Cambridge for several years, with groups notably opposing several speakers invited to the Cambridge Union. In October last year, an invitation to feminist speaker Linda Bellos was revoked by the Beard Society at Peterhouse due to her views on the politics of the transgender rights movement, prompting an outcry about perceived censorship.

Critics claim that safe spaces, no-platforming, trigger warnings may produce a generation of ‘snowflake students’ who are refuse to engage with ideas and beliefs different to their own. However, many believe that these contribute to an environment where more students can engage with difficult topics on their own terms and are protected from discrimination.

CUSU also submitted evidence to the free speech inquiry which criticised the government’s Prevent strategy, saying there is “clear evidence that free speech is being suppressed at the University of Cambridge” and that there is a “worrying trend in the suppression of the freedom of expression”. The students’ union also accused the University of contravening the Human Rights Act through its implementation of Prevent.

Its evidence cited the impact of the Prevent duty and the University’s imposition of a replacement chairwoman at a panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the BDS movement in November.

This case was also cited in evidence submitted by Churchill College fellow and English faculty lecturer Dr Priyamvada Gopal, who wrote that SOAS academic Dr Ruba Salih “was replaced by a ‘neutral’ university administrator who was also, as people deemed ‘neutral’ tend to be, white and male.”

“This is something no academic community can afford to treat lightly. It is profiling based on national-origin and political views, a slippery slope down which any one of us can be made to take a tumble,” she said.

Gopal slammed the University for “participating in a magnificent dereliction of moral and scholarly duty that will ultimately rebound on and undermine this university’s community and standards”.

The University’s evidence also quoted its statement on free speech, which says that it 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’.

READ: The University of Cambridge's full response

The University defended safe spaces in its response to a government inquiry into free speech on campuses.

The statement says: “The University will ensure that academic staff have such freedom within the law and within the University’s own provisions without placing themselves at risk of losing their job or any University privileges they have.

“The University expects all staff and students to receive and respond to intellectual and ideological challenges in a constructive and peaceable way. The University instils the capacity for critical engagement in its students, allowing them to engage with a wide range of viewpoints and to listen, dissect, analyse, reason, adjudicate and respond to those viewpoints.”

In a statement posted on Facebook today, the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) said it wished “to fervently condemn the development of anti-free speech culture within British universities”.

It added: “While courtesy and mutual respect in debate are paramount, the right to not be offended is non-existent. Universities of all institutions in particular should be a place for the discovery, exchange and challenging of a contrastive range of ideas.

“It is highly regrettable that certain student groups are seeking to undermine this great tradition. CUCA’s events are always open to people who disagree with us because we cherish free speech and understand that it is the oxygen of any democratic society.”

The next meeting of the parliamentary inquiry, on 17th January, will feature Amatey Doku, former CUSU president and incumbent NUS vice-president for higher education. In an interview with Varsity in May 2017, Doku criticised the focus on safe spaces in the British politics: “This is an unhelpful, entirely irrelevant narrative about students which delegitimises all their other concerns.”

This article was updated to include the statement released by the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA)