We have enthusiastic coverage of our campaign in the Mail, the Spectator, the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Cambridge Student, as well as a statement from the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network. We also have support from the Minister of State for Universities. How's that for broad-spectrum engagement?

Here's a statement from Stephen Fry, which appeared in the Sunday Times:

"Doubtless for the best motives, a rather muddled insistence on automatic "respect" is being injected into Cambridge University's free speech policy. A demand for respect is like a demand for a laugh, or demands for love, loyalty and allegiance. They cannot be given if not felt. There are many opinions, positions and points-of-view which I find I do not and cannot respect. That is surely true for all us. 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. Doubtless we can all hope for respectful attitudes in matters of debate and interpersonal exchange – much as we hope for friendly and pleasant manners in all circumstances – but to burn respect into statutes and protocols is absurd, or worse. Such an impulse tips over the line into thought control. A free mind is obliged to respect only the truth. There is so much passion and distress fomenting the current debate on campus freedom and academic discussion that decisions are being made and policies implemented on the basis of fear rather than reason or sense. This has nothing to do with "sides" or particular issues. Think of the human attitude or political philosophy you believe to be amongst the most wicked and dangerous in the world. Do you consent to being forced to respect it? Perhaps what is meant is that Cambridge University wants decorum and politeness. These are codes, much like a dress code, to which any reasonable person might be expected to conform. But please do not tell us what to think and feel."

The story so far...

Our beloved Vice-Chancellor proposes a "free speech" policy under which all academics must treat other academics with "respect", along with their claimed opinions and identities. This is no doubt meant well, but the drafting is surprisingly vague and authoritarian for a university where the VC, the senior pro-VC, the HR pro-VC and the Registrary are all lawyers. 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 policy was slipped out in March, when nobody was paying attention. There was a Discussion in June, at which my campaign colleague Arif Ahmed spelled out the problems.

Vigorous debate is intrinsic to academia and it should be civil, but it is unreasonable to expect people to treat all opposing views with respect. Oxford's policy spells this out. At the Discussion, Arif pointed out that "respect" must be changed to "tolerance" if we are to uphold the liberal culture that we have not just embraced but developed over several centuries.

At its first meeting this term, the University Council considered these arguments but decided to press ahead anyway. We have therefore called a ballot on three amendments to the policy. If you're a senior member of the University, please vote for the following amendments.

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

The second amendent makes it harder to force university societies to disinvite speakers whose remarks may be controversial.

The third amendment restricts the circumstances in which the university itself can ban speakers.

Liberalism is coming under attack from authoritarians of both left and right, yet it is the foundation on which modern academic life is built and our own university has contributed more than any other to its development over the past 811 years. If academics can face discipline for using tactics such as scorn, ridicule and irony to criticise folly, how does that sit with having such alumni as John Maynard Keynes and Charles Darwin, not to mention Bertrand Rusell, Douglas Adams and Salman Rushdie?

Cambridge has already had several shameful incidents, including a demand by students that a college sack a long-serving member of staff for taking the wrong side in the debate between womens's rights and trans rights. In previous years we'd have told the student union to stop being obnoxious and grow up. But recently the authorities have started to join in, demanding that the university PR manager chair a student society meeting to discuss disinvestment from Israel, and forcing the theology faculty to disinvite an academic with conservative Christian views. This attempt to trim the bounds of debate by suppressing lawful opinions sincerely held by many citizens is wrong and foolish; it is not made better by seeking to cancel views on both left and right. A university's enemy is ignorance, not ignorant people, and we believe that the proper antidote to ignorance and folly is argument rather than coercion.

Voting opens on November 27th 2020. The ballot paper gives you a choice between accepting the Vice-chancellor's "respect" policy, amending it, and rejecting all change. If you vote for the amendments, you can also decide which of them to support. Please vote for the amendments as your first preference, and reject the proposed change altogether as your second preference. This means that at the stage where you select your preferences, the screen should look like this, and if you did that right the confirmation screen at which you submit the ballot should look like this.

If you don't agree with us but are happy to leave things as they are, then please vote to reject all change.

Ross Anderson


For more on the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, see our 2018 web page on votes for research staff; our 2007-10 web page which evolved through various governance tussles; our campaign web page on the IP issue; our 2003-7 web page; and our page on the IP ballot result.

Show your support by linking to us at: http://www.freecambridge.org