Jonathan McHugh illustration of Camilla Cavendish column ‘Mandated ‘respect’ for others’ opinions hurts free speech’
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

If you wander down Trumpington Street in Cambridge, you will find yourself at one of the birthplaces of the English Reformation. It was here, at The White Horse Inn, that scholars secretly met to debate the smuggled works of Martin Luther. By preaching Luther’s heretical belief that ordinary people should read the Bible for themselves, and not just accept the word of priests, Cambridge was one of the places that helped to transform European thought. So it is especially sad that the University of Cambridge is now pushing proposals which could undermine free speech.

The university’s governing body, the Regent House, is voting until Tuesday on a new code of conduct which demands that staff, students and visitors be “respectful” of different opinions. This harmless-sounding clause is meant to support free speech. It was drawn up partly in response to faculty who were alarmed after a student backlash led to the rescinding of a fellowship to the psychologist Jordan Peterson, a self-styled “professor against political correctness”. But the row also demonstrates how dangerous it can be when well-meaning people try to please everyone. “Respect” is a soft-edged word that means different things to different people. It can easily morph into a prohibition against giving offence. 

“There’s no limit to how far this could go,” I was told by Arif Ahmed, the young philosopher at Gonville and Caius college who is leading a rebellion of academics against the code. “Did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons respect Islam? Was [18th-century Scottish philosopher] David Hume a respecter of religion? Who decides? A word like ‘respect’ is worse than useless. You can slide all the way from civility to a kind of deference which would refrain from attacking Islam, Christianity or Judaism.”

The new code defends “robust and challenging” debate, and “free speech within the law”. However, it seems to undermine those clauses with the demand that staff, students and visitors be “free to express themselves without fear of disrespect or discrimination”.

The problem is that there is no limit to what any individual might define as disrespect. Furthermore, while all beliefs should get a hearing they cannot, as Stephen Fry has said, command the heart. That is why Oxford university’s concise policy on free speech says that not all theories deserve equal respect. Cambridge’s proposal threatens the lifeblood of academic progress: the right to argue, challenge and, potentially, change minds. 

Strangely, Cambridge’s authorities seem unable to see the problem. Over the summer, concerned academics asked its executive body, the Council, if it would replace the word “respect” with “tolerance”. This would promote courtesy but ensure that people could openly disagree. The Council refused. At that point, a polite but deadly serious war broke out. A growing number of academics now support amendments to the proposed policy, including philosopher Simon Blackburn, economist Diane Coyle and statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter.

Mystified why the Council rejected the seemingly helpful “tolerance” proposal, I asked the university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope. He doesn’t remember the rebels’ proposal being “so clearly articulated at the time”. He told me, robustly, that “free speech is utterly central, and if we don’t uphold it we’re not doing our job”. He also warned against “overinterpreting what is meant to be a very high level statement”. Professor Toope has chaired meetings with the neutrality expected of his role. “I am not taking a position on ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’,” he said, “though I have heard some people say they don’t like the word ‘tolerance’ as it makes it seem as if other views are to be discredited.”

This, surely, goes to the heart of the issue. Tolerance is an ancient concept, and the best protector of free speech when people strongly disagree with each other: it allows issues to be aired and weaknesses exposed. I happen to deplore the pro-life movement. I have marched against it in the US and donated to pro-choice campaigns. But I defend pro-lifers’ right to make their case. I also note that pro-life charities have become vociferous in favour of free speech, along with some Jewish and feminist groups. Proponents of unfashionable causes often discover the importance of freedom of expression, which underlines its value.

The Cambridge row shows how hard it is for institutions to keep their footing in this new world of outrage. Twenty years ago, English universities felt little responsibility towards students beyond the lecture hall. Today, they are beset by activism, and demands for censorship from the political left and right.

The way to navigate these choppy waters is surely with the rigour and precision that characterise the best academic work. The vagueness of language in Cambridge’s new code lacks both. Some academics worry that it will have a chilling effect on who they invite and what they say, and that this may extend to their own contracts. “If the respect agenda becomes entrenched in disciplinary and grievance procedures, and arguments which used to be sorted out by people saying ‘grow up and stop being silly’ fall to intervention by HR busybodies, that will mean the end of academic tenure as we know it,” Ross Anderson, Cambridge Professor of Security Engineering, told me.

Such fears may be exaggerated. But the code’s fudge is dangerous. Do we really want to risk returning to a world where enquiring minds huddle together in secret, debating banned works and wondering if they dare say what they believe? If universities don’t do everything in their power to prevent such a reversal, they are not worthy of the title. 

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

Letters in response to this article:

Cambridge dons and their code of conduct / From Manus Charleton, Sligo, County Sligo, Ireland

Recalling a judge’s advice on right to cause offence / From Dick Taverne, House of Lords, London SW1, UK

There’s a word absent from today’s free speech debate / From Peter Gartside, Royston, Hertfordshire, UK

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