Cambridge University dons reject new rule to 'respect the diverse identities of others'

Camilla Turner
·3 min read
Cambridge University Top View - iStockphoto
Cambridge University Top View - iStockphoto

Cambridge University’s leaders have become embroiled in a free speech row with dons who are refusing to back a new rule requiring them to be “respectful of the diverse identities of others”.

The Council of the 800-year-old institution has proposed a series of updates to free speech rules but academics have argued that the changes are “authoritarian”.

Critics say the changes are “no doubt meant well” but the vague nature of their wording mean that they could be used to undermine academics’ freedom of speech rather than protect it.

The Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, a group of academics who oppose the changes, said: “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 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 Council, which is chaired by the vice-Chancellor, is the executive and policy-making body of the university.

Any changes it proposes to the rules must be approved by Regent House which is made up of Cambridge academics and senior administrative staff.

The Council put forward a series of changes to the university’s free speech policy in June, and academics have managed to force a ballot on a series of amendments including that the phrase “be respectful of” is replaced with “tolerate”.

Prof Ross Anderson, an expert in security engineering at Cambridge, told The Telegraph: “If you can discipline people for lack of respect, that undermines the freedom we have had for many centuries”.

He said that if the university’s proposed amendments are passed, it means that the “HR department can stick its nose into academic disputes of which they have no understanding whatsoever.”

Prof Anderson claimed that the impetus for the change to the free speech rules came from the “Stalinist left among the student union who like to ‘cancel’ people”.

Dr Arif Ahmed, a fellow at Gonville and Caius and lecturer in philosophy, told the Times Higher Education magazine:

“The problem with requiring ‘respect’ of all opinions and ‘identities’ is that ‘respect’ is vague, subjective and restrictive.

“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?”

Critics of the university’s proposed changes have also suggested an amendment to the wording which they say will make it harder to force university societies to disinvite speakers whose remarks may be controversial.

Cambridge University said they are “fully committed to the principle and promotion of freedom of speech and expression” adding that they have a “long tradition of seeking to safeguard them”.

A spokesman added: “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.”