Free speech in Cambridge is under threat. We must defend it.

Sophie Watson 25 November 2020

In one of my first ever psychology lectures here at Cambridge, I learnt the phrase “Nullius in verba.” It’s the motto of the Royal Society, and it means “on no one’s word.” In modern parlance – “take nobody’s word for it.” The lecturer urged us to remember this injunction throughout our studies (and going into our careers), even if we remembered nothing else. Don’t take anyone’s conclusions for granted, she told us. Consider the arguments for yourselves. Three years later, I do still remember – in fact, I think about that lecture rather a lot.

In March, as a series of outbreaks became a pandemic which rolled across the world, our Vice-Chancellor proposed a revised free speech policy which its opponents have condemned as “vague and authoritarian.” It’s a testament to the strength of their concerns that, while the rest of us were stockpiling and/or condemning the stockpiling of bogroll and making a mass exodus from the city, this issue was being fought out quietly but furiously in the dry pages of the Cambridge Reporter. You can read the free speech policy [1] and the concerns about it [2] in full, but there are three main points of contention.

First, it introduces a requirement that all staff, students and visitors to the University of Cambridge be “respectful… of the differing opinions [and] diverse identities of others.” Second, the policy makes no mention of the university’s legal duty to protect free speech in the context of no-platforming. While it refers to the relevant legislation in broad strokes, it is curiously silent on the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance drafted for university settings. This guidance states that the legal duty applies at Student Unions as well as to university-owned premises, and sets out the very limited set of circumstances in which an invited speaker can lawfully be disinvited. To be clear – it does not oblige any society or student union to invite someone they find objectionable to speak. It only protects them from then being forced to disinvite them by others who disapprove. Finally, the last section of the free speech policy (among other things) allows the university to ban visiting speakers as often as it likes, for any reason at all.

It’s not particularly exciting reading, and at first glance some of it seems sensible. Of course we should be respectful of other opinions and identities! Except… hang on. What does ‘respect’ actually mean? As the academics behind the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms point out, not all ideas are equally deserving of respect – many deserve condemnation, satire, and ridicule. Neither do all identities deserve respect – if respect means, as it can reasonably be taken to mean in this context, that they should not be open to condemnation or criticism. As Dr. Arif Ahmed pointed out at the time [3], “[diverse identities] could encompass almost any political or religious identity from white nationalism through Catholicism and Communism to militant Islamism.” The vice-chancellor’s policy has neither the scope nor the right to decide which identities are worthy of respect, so in principle it could be used to stifle criticism of anyone at all. The policy’s vagueness makes it worse than useless. It means that those with the power to decide whether or not to enforce it in each individual case can effectively decide which ideas are open for discussion, and which are not. This is exactly the kind of scenario that free speech legislation is supposed to protect us from.

It means that those with the power to decide whether or not to enforce it in each individual case can effectively decide which ideas are open for discussion, and which are not. This is exactly the kind of scenario that free-speech legislation is supposed to protect us from.

Despite multiple staff members raising these concerns, the policy was passed. In response, staff called for three amendments to be made – strengthening protections against no-platforming and university interference, and changing the requirement to “respect” differing opinions and identities to the requirement to “tolerate” them. These amendments dispose of the obvious problems I have outlined, and put paid to the patronising assumption that Cambridge students need to be protected from “disrespect,” rather than simply from abuse and discrimination in line with the law. Yet Professor Priya Gopal has called for the Cambridge chapter of the UCU to reject them out of hand, a proposition which the UCU accepted at their AGM today. This was a startling decision on Professor Gopal’s part, given her own track record: an online campaign was launched to have her fired after she tweeted that “white lives don’t matter. As white lives” earlier this year [4]. The university rightly tweeted in support of the right of all its academics to express controversial opinions, and condemned the disgusting abuse she received online as a result.

In her proposition to the UCU, Professor Gopal claimed that the student body supports her rejection of the amendments. She did so by citing the support of the Student Union – also revealing that the SU was involved in the Council’s original decision to implement the troubling changes which teaching staff are now seeking to amend. To be clear, this is the same student union that was elected this year on a voter turnout of just 20.88% [5]. It is the same student union that has a bad habit of failing to consult the students they supposedly represent before drafting policies which affect them [6]. But then, who cares? Left-leaning students like us don’t care about free speech – worrying about free speech is frightfully passé. It’s for the government and the Office for Students to stress about, not to mention the right-wing media. The Daily Mail published a poll of over a thousand students this week, with the finding that nearly 40% hid their opinions on issues that mattered to them because they were afraid that not doing so would adversely affect their careers [7]. But it was The Daily Mail who published it, so we don’t need to worry about that – right?

As a teenager, when Cambridge was still nothing but a castle in the air, I wanted it so badly because I was certain that (if I got in) then nullius in verba would become my watchword. I would be given the tools to consider the arguments for myself, then set loose in a new and vast world of ideas. I would be forced to learn and grow in ways that that touchingly eager, slightly lost seventeen-year-old girl could never have managed on her own. According to our Student Union (and some members of the teaching staff) students at Cambridge don’t care about free speech. Somehow, we have allowed these crucial values and freedoms to become the sole province of right-wing commentators – when someone brings them up, we smile at their naivety and roll our eyes. Are Professor Gopal and the Student Union wrong, or are they right? We’re getting to the point at which we, the student body, have to decide.