Free speech row erupts at Cambridge as academics revolt over new rule

Free speech row erupts at Cambridge as academics revolt over new rule demanding they be ‘respectful of the diverse identities of others’

  • The University of Cambridge is at the centre of a free speech row with lecturers
  • Academics refused to back a change free speech guidelines which could mean they face disciplinary action for mocking people or ideas they disagree with
  • Critics say the proposals are ‘authoritarian’ and undermines their rights

The University of Cambridge is at the centre of a free speech row after lecturers refused to back a new rule which could mean they face disciplinary action for mocking people they disagree with.

The University’s Council has proposed a series of rules which would require academics to be ‘respectful of the diverse identities of others’. 

But critics have argued that the proposals, which are looking to change free speech guidelines, are ‘authoritarian’. 

Academics said the university has ‘no right’ to demand they be respectful to all beliefs, arguing that they have a ‘right’ to satirize and mock them. 

The University of Cambridge is at the centre of a free speech row after lecturers refused to back a new rule which could mean they face disciplinary action for mocking people they disagree with (file photo)

The professors say the vague wording of the rules could be used to undermine their freedom of speech as academics, rather than protect it. 

‘The bottom line is that in future we might face disciplinary charges and even dismissal for mockery of ideas and individuals with which we disagree,’ the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, a group of academics who oppose the changes, told The Telegraph. 

‘The University has no right to demand that we be respectful towards all beliefs and to practices: on the contrary, we have a right, in some cases practically a duty, to satirize and mock them.’

The Council, chaired the vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope, is the principle executive and policy-making body of the university. 

It is responsible for defining the university’s mission and any proposals to change policies must be approved by the Regent House, which is made up Cambridge academics and senior administrative staff. 

The Council put forward the changes to the free speech policy earlier this year in June. 

But academics have called for a vote on a series of amendments they have proposed, including that ‘be respectful of’ is replaced with ‘tolerate’. 

‘If you can discipline people for lack of respect, that undermines the freedom we have had for many centuries,’ Professor Ross Anderson, an expert in security engineering at the University of Cambridge, said. 

He said if the university’s proposed rules are passed, it would mean that the ‘HR department can stick its nose into academic disputes of which they have no understanding whatsoever’. 

The University’s Council has proposed a series of rules which would require academics to be ‘respectful of the diverse identities of others’ (file photo)

The academic argued that the ‘Stalinist left among the student union who like to “cancel” people’ are what sparked the proposed changes to the free speech rules.

‘The problem with requiring “respect” of all opinions and “identities” is that “respect” is vague, subjective and restrictive,’ Dr Arif Ahmed, a Philosophy lecturer at the University of Cambridge told the Times Higher Education magazine.

‘For instance, David Hume certainly wrote disrespectfully about the Christian religion. Am I being disrespectful to that opinion or identity if I teach or endorse his views? Who gets to decide?’ 

Another amendment put forward by academics to the university’s proposed free speech rules will make it harder for people to force university societies to ban or disinvite speakers whose remarks are viewed as controversial.  

The University of Cambridge said they are ‘fully committed to the principle and promotion of freedom of speech and expression’.  

A spokesperson said:  ‘The University Council received three amendments from members of the Regent House, the University’s governing body, each proposing changes to individual paragraphs of the revised statement, and agreed to submit them to separate ballots.

‘This is a matter for the Regent House to determine; the University has a democratic system of governance and this vote is an expression of that.’

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