The Grace presented to members of Regent House, and subsequent amendments, has been controversial and received much national media attentionAmy Batley

Voting has begun on a Grace presented to Regent House, and amendments proposed by some academics, regarding changes to the University’s Statement on Freedom of Speech.

A Grace is a type of University legislation which is presented before members of Regent House, which includes academics and senior administrative staff, for their approval. The Grace in question asks members to consider recommendations made by the University Council on March 16th to revise the University’s Freedom of Speech Statement.

The updated Statement in March sought to revise the stance outlined in 2016, in order to address concerns raised by members of the University ‘about both the fundamental importance of the right to freedom of speech and the need to balance it against… competing legal duties.’

This follows a ruling by the Court of Appeal in March 2019, which stated that Prevent guidelines on inviting speakers were restricting the expression of interesting but controversial views.

The University’s revised statement includes the additional requirement of ‘respect’: ‘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.’

The new statement also adds a further condition which may be grounds for refusing an external speaker, stating that the speaker cannot intend if the event would ‘include the expression of views that are unlawful because they are discriminatory or harassing.’

Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope explained: “the growth of social media and the… polarisation of our political sphere have demonstrated… that debate in the absence of civility can be… hugely damaging.”

The revised statement also responds to existing ‘inconsistencies and inadvertent omissions’ in the 2016 statement.

A group of Cambridge academics have described the March Statement as ’vague and authoritarian’, and have backed three amendments to the initial statement. Yet the amendments have caused further controversy and have been resisted by several other academics who suggest that calls for ‘freedom of speech’ can provide a platform for ‘abhorrent’ views.

Around 80 academics initially supported the three amendments written by Dr Arif Ahmed, a Reader in Philosophy and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College.

The first amendment addresses the inclusion of ‘disrespect’ in the University’s proposed Statement. Whilst the latter calls for staff and students to be able ‘to express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law without fear of disrespect or discrimination,’ the amendment calls for this to be changed to ‘without fear of intolerance and discrimination’.

“Nothing in the proposed Statement settles what happens in the event of a clash between freedom of research or belief and ‘respect’ for people’s identities.”

This proposed amendment is driven by a desire to make the University’s Statement ‘clearer and more liberal’ as the current statement is deemed to be restrictive and require the respect of opinions with which one disagrees. Ahmed argues that the University should not ‘demand respect for all political or religious identities, from white nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism’.

Ahmed told Varsity that “there is a danger that if we say that a visitor or a person employed by the University has to show respect for other identities or beliefs then, for instance, there are many that have written disrespectfully about religion. Does that mean that we couldn’t have Richard Dawkins as a visiting professor? That I couldn’t teach the work of David Hume?”

Meanwhile, there is concern that the term ‘respect’ may create conflict between academic research and individual identities. Ahmed explained that ’nothing in the proposed Statement settles what happens in the event of a clash between freedom of research or belief and ‘respect’ for people’s identities.’

The second amendment focuses on preventing the University from being able to stop anyone from speaking on University premises, unless in specific instances where they may express unlawful speech or breach the University’s legal obligations. Ahmed insists that ‘being exposed to views that question or offend your fundamental beliefs and feelings, about yourself and society, is a large part of the point of attending University in the first place.’

The final amendment takes issue with rules and prohibitions of events held on its premises. Claiming that the University’s statement is open-ended and vague in this regard, in providing possible examples which could justify restrictions, albeit whilst acknowledging that reasons ‘are not limited to’ the examples listed. The proposed amendment confronts this vagueness, describing it as being ’unspecific about what counts as a ‘reasonable’ refusal’.

Ahmed believes that the University phrasing means that “it can stop events whenever it likes” and believes that there should instead be “a very specific, closed, negative list which says under which circumstances an event can be stopped, but in no others”.

The third amendment therefore specifies that restrictions would only be permissible in instances where there may be ‘a genuine threat or harassment’, ‘invades privacy’ or ‘is otherwise incompatible with the functioning of the University.’

Dr Jason Scott-Warren, a member of the University Council, when the University’s Statement was published in March, told Varsity that the University was “obliged to come up with a ‘free speech policy’, and it has done its best to accommodate a variety of views on this question.”

If the amendments are passed, the University will still be obliged to follow the UK’s Counter-Terrorism PREVENT strategy, which addresses concerns about potential radicalisation.

Those in favour of the amendments argue that academic freedom and possibility to debate are crucial to University life. Master of Selwyn College, Roger Mosey, believes that the University’s Freedom of Speech statement in March “was a big step forward in defending free expression,” but suggests that “the proposed amendments make it stronger still”.

Last week, Libertas, the University’s recently-formed free speech society similarly supported the amendments. In an open letter, which has so far been signed by over 140 students and alumni, Libertas argue that ‘students of this university, supposedly handpicked for their ability, are not uncritical lemmings to be indoctrinated.’

Libertas raise particular concern about the use of the term ‘respect’, writing: ‘we don’t view pseudoscientific anti-vaxxers or climate change denialists as worthy of our admiration or respect. ’

“Not being able to speak at a university, or having an invitation withdrawn, does not constitute an infringement of an individual’s rights to free speech.”

The three amendments have received differing levels of support. Of the academics to initially support the amendments, the first had 100 signatories, whilst the second and third were signed by 80 and 81 academics, respectively.

Yet the amendments have been resisted by many other academics in the University. The Cambridge branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) tweeted: ‘neither the original statement nor the amendments are fit for purpose’.

Cambridge UCU previously expressed concern that the University’s revised statement was ‘bowing’ to political pressure from the Department for Education and Office for Students. UCU insisted that ‘the University should stand up against all attempts at political interference, including the restrictions on free speech entailed by the Prevent policy’.

Others raised specific criticisms of the proposed amendments. Scott-Warren addressed the issue of no-platforming in relation to free speech, arguing that “not being able to speak at a university, or having an invitation withdrawn, does not constitute an infringement of an individual’s rights to free speech.”

He personally feels that “the celebration of ‘free speech’ has become a way of stifling objections to many abhorrent aspects of the status quo in our society,” suggesting that “we have a duty to fight back against this in anyway that we can”.

Meanwhile, Professor Priyamvada Gopal believes that there should be “the right to disinvite bigots as an act of protest.”

Whilst Gopal agrees with an aspect of the proposed amendments, writing: “I don’t believe that we should have to ‘respect’ any and all opinions,” but argues that calls for free speech “are about anything but free speech - they want to stop the right to protest.”


Mountain View

Outrage at the Prevent policy should not be exclusively reserved for Extinction Rebellion

The ongoing vote follows controversy surrounding previous invited speakers. In May 2019, protestors sought to disrupt an event attended by the anti-feminist group Justice for Men and Boys. In November 2017, Dr Ruba Salih, a Palestinian academic was disinvited from chairing a panel co-hosted by the Palestine Society and Middle Eastern Society.

The results of the Regent House vote will be announced on 9th December.