Freedom of speech at universities is not under threat – it is actually thriving

A think tank has placed the University of Cambridge, along with 35 per cent of UK universities, in the ‘red’ category for free speech – but the report misunderstands what is really happening on campus  

Emily Watkins
Thursday 17 December 2020 16:19 GMT
<p>Cambridge dons voted to amend the phrase ‘respectful of’ to ‘tolerate’ in a series of updates to free speech rules proposed by the university’s council</p>

Cambridge dons voted to amend the phrase ‘respectful of’ to ‘tolerate’ in a series of updates to free speech rules proposed by the university’s council

How do you measure freedom of speech? It’s not a rhetorical question, though it is a timely one. According to think tank Civitas, the University of Cambridge – along with 35 per cent of UK universities – now falls into the “red” category for free speech.  

Analysing campus policy, events and a survey, wherein nearly a third of staff reported workplace harassment and bullying, the results of Civitas’s traffic light ranking – just 14 per cent of universities were designated “green” – are enough to make a libertarian squeal. The issue of quantifying something we perceive to be a fundamental right is, once again, making headlines – but surely, free speech will be defined differently depending on who you’re asking.  

It’s a problem as old as language itself. My freedom – to do or speak as I please – can never be absolute if yours is to be total, too. My right to insult you undermines your freedom not to have your feelings hurt. Every system of law strives to balance these conflicting liberties, charting Venn diagrams with varying degrees of mutual reliance between their circles. The Cambridge row, it seems to me, is no different.

One example cited by Civitas’s researchers involves a eugenicist and a pretty window. The commemorative glass was commissioned in 1989 to honour the legacy of one Sir Ronald Fisher, a fellow (and eventually president) of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, who died in 1962. Students petitioned the college to remove the window, and, in June this year, the powers-that-be obliged.

Far from striking cold fear into my heart, that story makes me happy. Isn’t objecting to something, talking it out and reaching an agreement, completely emblematic of how free speech ought to work?

There’s a dangerous little platitude floating to the surface of my mind, thinking of Fisher and the hoo-ha of his desecrated shrine. You know the one: everyone’s beliefs deserve respect. That is so patently untrue that I practically convulse when I hear it. Here’s a very short extract from a very long list of people whose beliefs, I’d venture, do not deserve respect: eugenicists; men who think they can beat their wives; members of the KKK or Britain First; homophobes and cult leaders; and that guy I met at a party who explained he’d voted for Brexit because there was a Polish person working at his local Costa. In short, something doesn’t become sacred simply because it is sincerely believed, and just because something is sacred doesn’t make it any more than a belief.  

Let’s say that Person A believes trans rights activists are dangerous and wrong. Trans rights activists, on the other hand, believe that Person A’s views are harmful and reductive. You’ll have your own stance on that imaginary stand-off – but subtracting personal feeling from the equation, we’re left with two viewpoints, which would fight to the death if left to their own devices. Should we strive instead for peaceful(ish) coexistence or allow one to triumph – a kind of Darwinian showdown of thought?

The dons at Cambridge raised a similar point, voting earlier this month to amend the phrase “respectful of” to “tolerate” in a series of updates to free speech rules proposed by the university’s council. Although the switch in terminology might not sound like a leap, the distinction is a crucial one – not least because it renders no-platforming practically impossible, for all its prominence in Civitas’s report.

While the recent news cycle might lead one to believe that no-platforming was hauled from the knapsack of the radical left only a few years ago, it’s been used as a form of protest since the 1970s. At the 1974 NUS conference, for instance, students resolved to deny a platform to “openly racist or fascist organisations or societies” in response to the rising profile of the National Front.  

While the criteria for such no-platforming has arguably shifted since then, the essential idea remains the same. Especially in an educational environment, surely the right to object to ideas comes under the same banner as the right to have those ideas in the first place? This latest vote might be summarised as “you don’t have to be nice, just don’t veer into hate speech” as an instruction to visiting speakers. But again, isn’t it subjective? Take Jordan Peterson and Nigel Farage, who both fell prey to the brutal no-platforming brigade of Cambridge before the recent vote. Today, in theory, they’d be welcome – but fair’s fair. If we’re hosting the Nigels and Jordans of this world, they’ll have to accept a bit of backchat.  

Not all ideas are created equal. Some come encased in a carapace built over centuries of repetition that almost obscure them from view – the patriarchy, or institutional racism, are so monolithic that it’s hard to step back far enough to recognise them as ideas like any other, rather than representations of some sacred natural order. Other ideas are new, vulnerable, soft and fledgling – rights for anyone not white and/or male are concepts in their societal infancy, and require our careful nurture. They need us to shout louder on their behalf, if only to counterbalance the scales, which place an established system of thought on one pan and a feather on the other.

A spokesperson for Cambridge University says that “rigorous debate is fundamental to the pursuit of academic excellence”, which is hard to object to; whether that commitment to debate ought to cover the view that some opinions don’t deserve a public airing seems less clear. “The university will always be a place where freedom of speech is not only protected, but strongly encouraged,” continues the statement; thing is, speaking requires spates of listening if it’s to graduate from monologue to conversation.

The Civitas report will no doubt reignite the old guard’s accusations of snowflakery – “See?! They got rid of my favourite eugenics window!” – but, as ever, the hysteria about “woke” censorship sheds light on the debate’s truly fragile side. The freedom to speak, I’m afraid, must make room for the possibility of being spoken over.

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