The results of the Grace presented to Regent House were announced on Wednesday

The University has adopted a new Statement on Freedom of Speech following voting on a grace, a type of University legislation, presented to Regent House. The results were announced on Wednesday (09/12).

The statement, first drafted in March, replaces a previous version from 2016, and was passed with three amendments claiming to make it “clearer and more liberal”.

Dr Arif Ahmed, a reader at the Faculty of Philosophy who authored the amendments, told Varsity that the result of the vote confirmed that his colleagues are concerned about freedom of speech.

“Although many academics are perhaps unwilling to speak openly about it, when they have the opportunity to reveal their preferences through a secret ballot, they did actually show that they care about freedom of speech and want it protected,” he said.

The first amendment replaces the demand for “respect” for the opinions of others, made in the March statement, with “tolerance”.

The second amendment makes it explicit that the University can only stop a speaker from attending an event if “they are likely to express unlawful speech” and “no reasonably practicable steps” other than a refusal can be taken.

Meanwhile the final amendment states that the University may only restrict an event if it “violates the law”, “falsely defames”, constitutes a “threat or harassment”, is an invasion of privacy, or is “otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University”.

All three amendments passed with a majority of over 75%. The turnout was 32.1%.

Commenting on the outcome, Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope said: “Freedom of speech is a right that sits at the heart of the University. This statement is a robust defence of that right...The statement also makes it clear that is unacceptable to censor, or disinvite, speakers whose views are lawful but may be seen as controversial.”

Toope’s comments were made despite criticisms of the March statement, which one group of academics called “vague and authoritarian”. Ahmed, however, emphasises that the policy was written in good faith, and the amendments were designed to make it clearer.

Cambridge will still be required to follow the Government’s anti-radicalisation policy Prevent. Ahmed is critical of the legislation, but does not believe it should have been addressed in the statement.

“I think Prevent is repressive, I think it’s been a disaster for interreligious relations. I think it causes self-censorship especially among the Muslim community but no doubt for others as well.”

“Whilst the Prevent duty does exist I don’t see why we have to include it in something we are voluntarily signing up to,” he continued.

The new statement and amendments received attention from the national press, as well as from students and staff. Roger Mosey, Master of Selwyn College, tweeted in support of the outcome of the vote, calling it “a big moment for the rights of free speech in universities”.

Meanwhile the Cambridge University Liberal Association were also “pleased to see that an overwhelming number of fellows have backed the free speech amendments”.

Professor Priyamvada Gopal was one of those critical of the new statement, tweeting that “the news from Cambridge [...] is beyond tedious”. Gopal, a Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the Faculty of English, faced abuse over the summer following falsified allegations of racism.

Gopal also accused the “free speech (but not freedom to protest) brigade” of “getting ready to re-invite a certain Canadian self-help guru”. It is understood by Varsity that Gopal is referring to academic Jordan Peterson.

It was later reported that right-wing journalist Toby Young, who is not affiliated with the University, would be writing to the Vice Chancellor asking for Peterson to receive an invitation.

An offer of a visiting fellowship made to Peterson by the Faculty of Divinity was rescinded in 2019. Peterson’s criticism of transgender rights and claims that white privilege is a “Marxist lie” have made him a controversial figure.

Gopal confirmed to Varsity her belief that “the immediate call by Toby Young and his far-right organisation the Free Speech Union, members of whom were involved in organising the Cambridge vote, to invite Jordan Peterson to campus is a clear indication of the fact that this was never about free speech.”

“What is at stake is giving eugenicists, racists, and transphobes a prestigious platform,” she continued.

Ahmed, however, explained that he has “no idea who if anyone has re-invited Pearson”, and pointed out that any re-invitation would have to be issued by the Faculty of Divinity. Ahmed did note that the Statement on Freedom of Speech and amendments will “make it harder to disinvite people”.

“They will, I hope, have the result that the list of invited speakers remains wide, perhaps wider than before,” he said.


Mountain View

Disagreements emerge amidst ongoing vote on University’s Freedom of Speech stance

The new statement was earlier criticised by the Cambridge branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). UCU believes that the policy is a result of “political pressure” and that the third amendment in particular threatens “the possibility of events related to protest or industrial action”.

In response to UCU’s concerns, Ahmed notes that “the right to protest is protected by Article 11 of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] so there is no risk that the right to protest is going to be undermined by this”.

He added that “the kind of protest the University would not permit would be someone physically preventing somebody else’s speaker event from going ahead”.