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10 Dec, 2020 11:06

Victory for free speech or empty rhetoric? Cambridge University pledges to ‘tolerate’ all views – but not everyone is convinced

Victory for free speech or empty rhetoric? Cambridge University pledges to ‘tolerate’ all views – but not everyone is convinced

Cambridge University has voted to encourage ‘tolerance’ rather than ‘respect’ for all viewpoints, in what has been described as a rare defeat for ‘woke’ activism in academia. But some say there’s little reason to celebrate.

The university’s Regent House, which comprises academic and senior administrative staff, overwhelmingly backed three amendments concerning language in the institution’s ‘Statement on Freedom of Speech’. 

The most controversial of the three proposed changes called for the statement to be altered to make it “clearer and more liberal”. The amendment took issue with several phrases, including the assertion that staff, students and visitors should be “respectful” of the “diverse identities of others”, arguing that “tolerant” would be a more appropriate word. 

The two other approved amendments added language to the statement which stressed that Cambridge was committed to “the completely free and open discussion of ideas”, and that guest speakers and student events could be barred only in extreme circumstances.  

Commenting on the result of the ballot, Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said the successful amendments served as “an emphatic reaffirmation of free speech in our university”, adding that Cambridge would remain an institution where unpopular opinions could be expressed and vigorously debated. 

Rigorous debate is fundamental to the pursuit of academic excellence, and the University of Cambridge will always be a place where freedom of speech is not only protected, but strongly encouraged.

Many on social media seemed to agree with how Toope characterized the vote. British writer and journalist Douglas Murray said the approved amendments were a “win” for freedom of speech. One observer expressed hope that the vote signalled that people were “waking up from the stupor of woke”.

But others said it was too little too late, and warned it would be premature to celebrate. Many pointed to Cambridge’s decision last year to rescind its offer of a visiting fellowship to Canadian professor and author Jordan Peterson, arguing that the institution appears to be selective with its “tolerance”.

One Twitter user claiming to be a student at the university expressed dismay that the trades union for academic staff at Cambridge had urged its members to vote against the amendments.

“Most ignored them in the anonymous vote, so it’s a vocal minority pushing for this. But will they still be a minority in 5-10 yrs?” the student asked. 

Others were taken aback by the “interesting” way in which some UK media outlets framed the Cambridge vote. 

In recent months, the prestigious educational institution has become a battleground in the ongoing ‘culture war’ over issues of social justice and freedom of expression. Cambridge faced both praise and criticism after it released an “anti-racism” statement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

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