Taking Action: Email Your Supervisors to Support Free Speech at Cambridge

Frederick Robinson 6 December 2020
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As many will know, perhaps through the erudite elucidation of Stephen Fry in The Times, a vote on the university’s free-speech policy, and three pro-free speech amendments proposed by academics, is underway (closing at 5pm on 8th December). For those that might have not followed the story, the amendments recommend the following:

1) the term ‘respect’ for opposing ideas would be changed to ‘tolerate’, expressing that you cannot be forced to feel admiration or even acceptance for ideas you dislike, but you must be expected to allow them to be expressed, to tolerate them;

2) explicitly committing to the Equality and Human Right’s Commissions Guidance on s. 43 of the Education (no. 2) Act 1986, which makes clear that speaker events should not be cancelled once a speaker has already been engaged because of protests in opposition;

3) removing reference to Prevent Guidance which has now been ruled to be illegal, and removing an exception that would allow the University to refuse to hold an event that would pose a threat to the welfare of students, which is infinitely open-ended and could be argued to cover any mildly controversial opinion.

I will not attempt to put together some sort of argument in favour of free speech here. I feel most people have considered the topic and come to a conclusion, and if you are yet to do so then it’s all in J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’. However, if you are concerned in any way about speakers being cancelled because of vocal minorities in opposition, about academics not being able to express reasonable views for fear of their livelihoods being taken from them, or about being forced to ‘respect’ view you dislike, then you now have a chance to make a difference.

Email your supervisors, tutors or any voting member of the university that you know shares these fears. Ask them to support the amendments. In fact, email them even if you are not sure they do – at least they will have to vote against the amendments in the full knowledge they act against the wishes of their students.

The amendments will make it harder for the University to justify measures that restrict what we as students can hear, consider and critique in the search for the truth. The way for us to facilitate this is to impress upon those who have a vote that this is what we want.


Helpful links:

1. Fly sheet explaining amendments https://www.governance.cam.ac.uk/ballots/voting/Documents/Freedom%20of%20Speech%20fly-sheets%20and%20response%20-%20MT2020.pdf
2. Statement on free speech
3. Stephen Fry in The Times