Thursday, March 18, 2021

Dr Arif Ahmed: Free Speech Policy – and the Importance of the Secret Vote

In March 2020 Cambridge University Council proposed a new ‘free speech policy’ featuring this passage:

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, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination.

I found this wording completely unacceptable.

First, its plain meaning was directly repressive. ‘Respect’ implies appreciation or admiration; it rules out giving offence.[1] But lecturers, students etc. should not respect patently false opinions concerning e.g. vaccination or climate change. Nor should the University demand respect for all political or religious identities, from white nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism.

Second, its penumbral meaning was indirectly repressive. Many political, philosophical and scientific views are arguably ‘disrespectful’ of the ‘differing opinions’ or ‘diverse identities’ of someone or other. UK universities have recently conducted lengthy and hostile investigations into, or taken disciplinary action against, expressions of belief including support for Palestinian rights[2] and for gender-critical feminism[3]. In one case more than 500 students petitioned Oxford University to force two Professors to include trans women in their research into women’s equality, so as not to create a ‘hostile and exclusionary atmosphere’.[4] One could easily imagine a public commitment to ‘respect’ for ‘identities’ being invoked to create similar pressure in Cambridge. One could even more easily imagine risk-averse staff and students (which in this climate means everyone) just not saying anything controversial in case that might happen.

At a University discussion in June I therefore proposed amendments which among other things replaced ‘respect’ with ‘tolerance’.[5] ‘Tolerance’ is more sharp-edged. It means willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own even if you disagree with them.[6] Research or speech that simply accepts the existence of a belief or identity thus counts as tolerant of it. The amendments therefore placed no limits at all (beyond the law) on what staff and students could say or write, or on what beliefs they might assert, propose or question, or on the terms in which they might do these things. 

The ‘other things’ are worth mentioning. A second amendment made it harder to cancel invitations to controversial speakers. And for the third: the original proposals gave the University scope to stop a speaker event whenever it liked and on any grounds at all; the amended version instead briefly enumerated very limited grounds that matched those stated in the well-known ‘Chicago Principles’.[7]

In September the University Council responded briefly and curtly.[8] It rejected all three amendments and insisted on pushing through its original policy without offering a vote. A handful of us therefore tried to gather the 25 signatures necessary to force a vote of all senior academic staff (the Regent House). Eventually we succeeded, and the Council scheduled the ballot for 27 November – 8 December.

Our task in the campaign was simply to present our arguments to as many colleagues as possible. My colleagues Prof. Ross Anderson (Churchill) and Dr Julius Grower (Jesus) both made extraordinarily successful efforts in that direction. But the arguments themselves – which I have already outlined – were not elaborate. Nor did they need to be. In private conversations many academics – I noticed especially those in law and the physical sciences – were quick to see, and then to find it alarming, (a) that the vagueness of ‘respect’, ‘identity’ etc. offered endless scope for abuse; and (b) that by demanding ‘respect’ the proposed code policed not only our speech but also our minds, as Stephen Fry pointed out in the Sunday Times just after voting opened.[9]

We were also fortunate to get wide publicity outside Cambridge – again thanks to Prof. Anderson – and therefore also wide public support. The FT[10], the Index on Censorship[11] and the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network[12] all supported us in public, as did a Nobel laureate (Sir Greg Winter), a former Astronomer Royal (Lord Rees), a former Ambassador (Paul Collis), Prof. Richard Dawkins and the Minister of State for Universities[13].

The arguments against our amendments were hard to identify. I heard two at a debate at the local UCU. The first was that the amendments curtailed students’ right to protest. The second, broader, point was that there is no ‘free speech problem’: the British government, on this view, has simply invented it to distract everyone from its mishandling of other things.

The first argument is mystifying. Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to protest, for students or anyone else.[14] None of my amendments came within a mile of threatening that. Who could have dreamt otherwise? The second amendment does rule out one kind of protest: namely, protesting at someone else’s speech by stopping them from saying anything at all. But anyone who regards shutting people up as a legitimate response to their arguments has no place in our higher education system, although they might pass muster as a nursery-school assistant or prison guard.

The second argument betrays quite a lot of ignorance. Cambridge University had itself just recently adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.[15] This ‘definition’ is really nothing of the kind: in the vagueness of its language and in the sweeping range of its appended examples it evidently and effectively discourages all manner of expression in defence of Palestinian rights. As such it threatens to chill free speech on a matter of the first importance: an effect against which a robust free speech policy might offer some protection. How on earth could the local UCU pretend that there was no problem?

Or look at this site[16], where feminist scholars testify to facing abuse, investigation, or worse just for raising questions about sex and gender. One writes:

I see colleagues explain how a person with short hair must be non-binary (no such thing as a woman with short hair!) and don’t understand how they don’t see how regressive this is. I doubt myself on a regular basis. Is it just me? Am I going mad? I am on a fixed term contract and feel totally helpless to speak out or even question how things are.


We have been asked at University of Manchester to write our preferred pronouns on our email signatures. I really don’t want anyone to define me or even be considering my gender, it feels deeply regressive. I know if I take a stand I will probably get sacked or something. It feels really sinister.

If you think that free speech in universities is not a problem, do you think that these lecturers, and the hundreds like them with similar stories – many of them very junior, or on short-term contracts, or precariously employed – are all lying, or mad? Or do you just not care? Whatever the reason, Cambridge UCU clearly felt no concern, for it instructed its several thousand local members to support the University proposals over ours.    

Fortunately they and almost everyone else just ignored it, because at the actual vote, amidst a very high turnout, the result was about 4 to 1 for our amendments.[17] In consequence Cambridge’s policy now offers strong and clear protection to the speech of academics, staff, students and visitors.[18]

The result was widely welcomed, including by the Secretary of State for Education, who wrote: ‘More than a victory for common sense, it touches something far deeper. Freedom of speech, thought or expression is one of the most prized aspects of a civilised society…To appreciate how precious freedom of speech is, listen to those who have been denied it.’[19] And since then the Government has gone further, publishing a White Paper on academic freedom setting out (among other things) guidance on University speech codes that consciously incorporates the spirit and some of the wording of the Cambridge amendments.[20]

I think the whole episode cast light in many directions; in conclusion I’ll briefly mention one. In March 2020, when the University first proposed this policy, I couldn’t find anyone willing to challenge it in public. Not because they all had other things to think about (though of course at that time everyone did) but because they feared the consequences.

The same thing happened when I and a few colleagues tried to gather signatures to force a vote. You would have thought 25 signatures would not be difficult to extract from more than 4000 dons; but again, I asked probably 50 people who said that they supported me in private but felt afraid to do so in public. They had just applied for promotion, or for a grant, or their head of department might be hostile, or their colleagues might ostracize them…

You see it in meetings too. Everyone here knows what I mean. Some meddlesome but trendy reform gets proposed by the departmental ideologues; it is tiresome nonsense; everyone knows that it is nonsense; everyone knows that everyone knows that it is nonsense … and yet nobody speaks or votes against it, it goes through, and the darkness thickens. Why don’t you speak or vote against it? – because you are afraid that nobody else will, and you will end up isolated, and you are on a temporary contract… If you had left Cambridge as a student in, say, 2011 and returned to academic life here today, you would be astonished and depressed at the rapidity with which, and the extent to which, fear has now penetrated people’s minds.   

Academic tenure was supposed to safeguard against this emperor’s-new-clothes type of situation. That protection has long gone, but another one, which the recent vote illustrates, is the secret ballotMany more academics were prepared to vote against the Council than to speak against it; and I suspect something analogous is true of almost any question where being loudly on one side is a form of virtue-signalling. Secret voting disconnects virtue-signalling from decision-making: the only thing you have any incentive to express on a secret ballot is your honest opinion. It therefore constitutes a vital procedural protection for any institution – a College, a Faculty, a Department or a whole University – whose decision-making processes depend on the sincerity and independent-mindedness of its members. It ought to be the norm at every level.   






















Dr Arif Ahmed is a philosophy scholar at Cambridge University and advocate for free speech.  This article has been published on the website HERE with the consent of the author. 

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