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Cambridge University Just Delivered A Clear Victory For Free Speech


College campuses have recently become a major battleground for free speech. For a while, however, it seemed advocates for censoring speeches and canceling speakers were winning.

Just last week, professor Joseph Epstein, currently a lecturer at Northwestern University, was effectively canceled by the university after he wrote an op-ed criticizing Jill Biden, wife of Joe Biden, for insisting on using the honorific “Dr.” in front of her name because she has a Ph.D. in education.

Still, all is not lost for proponents of free speech. The United Kingdom’s Cambridge University just proved free speech can win even on one of the most “woke“ college campuses.

A few months ago, the university’s council proposed a new free speech policy that sought to censor speech in the name of “respect.” The policy stated that staff and students should be able to “express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of disrespect or discrimination” and “the University expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the differing opinions of others… [and] be respectful of the diverse identities of others.”

Proponents of free speech pushed back immediately. While everyone agreed that a civil debate should be respectful, Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge reader in philosophy (equivalent to associate professor in the United States), worried, “’Respect’ as used here may be taken to imply admiration or approval. We should not be expected to respect all opinions or identities that the law permits.”

After all, not all ideas and theories deserve respect. Some ideas are so erroneous or malevolent that they must be debated and challenged. A policy mandating respect, in Ahmed’s words, may gradually shift people’s attitude from “polite forbearance, to positive admiration, and even to the point of unquestioning deference.”

David Butterfield, a fellow at Queens College, expressed his support for this perspective:

We have no right to expect respect for what we say and believe, however fervently and however legally. But we all have the right to be tolerated — and coercion or bullying to close down any such statements should be anathema to an atmosphere of open inquiry.

Stephen Fry, a famed actor, comedian, and a Cambridge alumnus, shared Butterfield’s concern in an op-ed for the Sunday Times:

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 … what is really being asked is a pretense, a display of lip-service, which in a university whose reputation is founded on empirical and rational inquiry, open argument, and free thought, is surely inimical.

Ahmed and his colleagues offer three amendments to the new free speech policy. First, they propose changing the word “respect” to “tolerance,” arguing staff and students should be able to “question and test received wisdom, and to express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of intolerance or discrimination” and “the University expects its staff, students and visitors to be tolerant of the differing opinions of others … [and] be tolerant of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination.”

Amendment two addresses the popular phenomenon of dis-inviting speakers. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps a “disinvitation” database to track speakers who have been invited and then their invitations rescinded by various colleges and universities. The database has already collected more than 400 names, including former First Lady Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Cambridge University got an “honorable” mention in the database because, in 2019, it rescinded a visiting fellowship to best-selling author Jordan Peterson, because some leftists at the university were offended by Peterson’s outspokenness against political correctness, especially on gender-related issues.

Supporters of free speech pointed to Peterson’s “cancelation” by Cambridge as evidence that Amendment two is imperative because it ensures speakers, no matter how controversial or unpopular their ideas are, will not be dis-invited or barred from giving speeches on campus, unless what they intend to say breaches the law.

Amendment three aims to further strengthen free speech on campus by putting rules in place to prevent the university from “unreasonably either refuse to allow events to be held on its premises or impose special conditions upon the running of those events.” Further, it proposed that “the lawful expression of controversial or unpopular views will not in itself constitute reasonable grounds for withholding permission for a meeting or event.”

All three amendments are reasonable, logical, and necessary to ensure Cambridge’s new policy won’t be weaponized to stifle free speech on campus. What’s even more remarkable is that these amendments have gained wide support, from faculty to students, even including some liberal cohorts.

Hundreds of Cambridge’s undergraduate and graduate students signed an open letter to support all three amendments:

Ideas ought to be subjected to open discussion and debate that tests their value … By attempting in good faith to protect identities and free expression, the current rules, un-amended, deny fellows and students like ourselves the ability to engage in the very discussions we are here to have and learn from.

The Cambridge Radical Feminist Network offered their whole-hearted support of all three amendments. Simply put, the organization stated, “nobody has the right not to be offended.” These feminists “reject the policy’s over-broad encroachments on the right to speak freely and debate legitimately.” They also made it clear that they “do not need to be protected from exposure to certain points of view and modes of expression.”

Despite the widespread support, however, the university’s administrators initially rejected all three amendments. Under heavy pressure from numerous supporters of the amendments, the university’s council agreed to let the Regent House, the university’s governing body with 7,000 academic and administrative staff as members, vote on the three amendments. When the votes were counted on Dec. 9, an overwhelming majority (more than 80 percent) of the Regent House members voted for all three amendments.

The Cambridge University Liberals, an association for liberals and liberal democrats at the university, tweeted:

We are so pleased to see that an overwhelming number of fellows have backed the free speech amendments. Freedom of speech is at the heart of any free society, and is especially crucial in the university; Cambridge now sets an example that other institutions can follow.

Cambridge University’s landslide win for free speech offers some encouraging lessons for other colleges. In recent years, those who hold illiberal ideas have successfully transformed many colleges from institutions of free inquiry and open debate into the least welcoming environment for free speech and the diversity of ideas. The noise they made has drowned out opposing views, and their aggressive tactics have cowed many staff and students into silence.

The recent progress at Cambridge University presents a winning approach to push back what’s known as the campus “woke“ mob: first is to recognize that the mob may be loud and aggressive, but they are small in number. So defenders of free speech shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.

The second is to build a broad coalition through logical usage of language. The voting result in Cambridge showed that the majority of people, regardless of their political and ideological affiliations, value free speech.

Defending free speech shouldn’t be a battle between conservatives and liberals. Rather, it is a battle between freedom and tyranny.

Free speech is a fundamental pillar of an open and free society. As Benjamin Franklin warned us: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” All of us, conservatives and liberals alike, must work together to defend our right to free speech. Our free society cannot survive without it.