The University of Cambridge took down a website last Monday that would have enabled members of the University to make anonymous complaints about students and staff for “micro-aggressions” and other non-crimes. The published list of offences included giving someone a “backhanded compliment” and referring to a woman as a “girl”. The Free Speech Union wrote to the Canadian Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, threatening legal action. We reproduce, below, an article in the Telegraph about the climbdown.
Cambridge removes website where dons can be reported for “raising an eyebrow”
by Camilla Turner and Pravina Rudra
Cambridge University has taken down a website which said dons could be reported for “raising an eyebrow” at students.
It comes just days after The Telegraph exposed the university’s new anonymous reporting site which stated that academics could be committing a “micro-aggression” if they gave backhanded compliments, turned their backs on certain people or referred to a woman as a girl.
Dons had accused the university of trampling on free speech, saying the reporting system would foster a culture “akin to that of a police state”. Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Prof Stephen Toope is also facing a legal challenge over the contents of the website.
Prof Toope said that since the website’s launch last week, “it has come to light that certain ancillary material was included in error”. He explained that the entire website had been taken offline while the material in question was removed, adding that the university had launched an investigation into how it was included in the first place.
“I believe that some of the statements and examples in this material go beyond the approved policy framework and would undermine its impact,” he said.
“The website has been temporarily taken down while that material is removed. I have asked senior staff to look into how this error occurred.”
The row over the website was set to escalate after the Free Speech Union (FSU) threatened to take Prof Toope to court.
Toby Young, general secretary of the FSU, wrote to the Vice-Chancellor claiming that the website and policy “proposed a system of policing speech and everyday interaction” which would be “inconsistent” with its duty to uphold free speech.
He pointed out that section 43 of the Education Act 1986 requires universities to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for employees.
“This policy, as you must be aware, would radically interfere with how your academics teach, argue with and learn from students, as well as how students interact with each other,” Mr Young said.
“It would mean academics and students were under constant threat of being reported and investigated for having committed some wholly innocent but perceived slight, which would inevitably have a chilling effect on interactions that, in a university, should be free and unguarded.”
Mr Young added that should the policy reappear in anything like its original form, the FSU would “seek to challenge its lawfulness in the High Court”.
Last week, a list of potential offences were published by Cambridge on a new website on which academics and students can anonymously report “inappropriate” behaviour.
The site had been created as part of a “Change the Culture” initiative that includes a series of policies and resources aimed at “clarifying expectations” about behaviour.
The new behaviour resources explained that micro-aggressions are everyday “slights, indignities, put-downs and insults” to which minority groups are subjected.
A list of examples was provided on the website, including asking someone “where are you really from?” and misgendering a person, especially if they have already shared their pronouns.
The site claimed that micro-aggressions also included “behaviours such as a change in body language when responding to those of a particular characteristic, for example, raising eyebrows when a black member of staff or student is speaking, dismissing a staff or student who brings up race and/or racism in a teaching and learning or work setting”.
One Cambridge don told The Telegraph: “My hope is that they have recognised that the regime is at the very least on the borders of lawfulness.
“This is not just about the law. It is about the entire culture. This policy suggests that Cambridge dons and students are not capable of dealing with ordinary interpersonal friction in day-to-day social interactions.
“What kind of message are we sending to the next generation if we say the solution to someone offending you is to run to the authorities and report them anonymously?”
Earlier this month, a new bill on academic freedom was featured in the Queen’s Speech, which Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said will end “the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all”. Universities in England could face fines if they fail to protect free speech on campus under tougher legislation.
The proposed new reporting website came in for considerable criticism in the press. Writing in the Telegraph, FSU Director Douglas Murray advised Cambridge alumni to withhold donations until the Vice-Chancellor had resigned. “Permit me to commit a macro-aggression against the Canadian lawyer currently trying to run one of our great universities into the ground,” he wrote. “I would like to ask him – and think more people should join in doing so – ‘Who do you think you are? What right do you think you have to tell people which facial muscles to move? This is a great university, not a playpen filled with your lurid and bizarre phantasms.'”
Charles Moore, the former editor of the Telegraph, also weighed in. “Prof Toope, who has made repeated speeches in praise of Xi Jinping’s China, is developing methods of denunciation of which the People’s Republic would be proud,” he wrote.
In addition, 25 leading Cambridge academics, including members of the FSU’s Advisory Council, wrote a letter to the Telegraph demanding that whatever replaces the website must be “fully compatible with the right to unfettered freedom of speech and expression within the law as well as with the university’s core commitment to the free and fearless discussion of ideas”.
Fraser Myers, an Assistant Editor of Spiked, warned that “woke politics has been so enthusiastically embraced by our elite institutions and the authorities, sitting out of the culture wars is not an option.”
The reporting website has now been put back up, but it’s a pale shadow of the original. The list of reportable offences has disappeared, it doesn’t accept anonymous complaints and – critically – the site doesn’t ask people to name the person they’re complaining about. That’s a good outcome and all those who raised the alarm deserve credit. It shows that attacks on free speech can be repelled provided we act quickly, decisively and in unison. It’s now time to turn out attention to other universities that have created snitching portals, of which there are several. More news on that soon.
Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Briefing
A few weeks ago we produced a briefing paper on the Online Safety Bill, and we’ve just created another on the Higher Education Bill. We are not so keen on the former, but very much in favour of the latter.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom in English universities by imposing more robust legal duties on Higher Education Providers and Student Unions. These include the duty to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the free speech of academic staff, non-academic staff, students and visitors to universities; to actively promote freedom of speech; and to protect academics’ freedom to question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and express controversial opinions.
There are already several laws protecting academic free speech on the statute books, but they are more honoured in the breach than the observance and this Bill will create some practical mechanisms for enforcing those laws, including allowing civil claims to be brought against Higher Education Providers and Student Unions, as well as creating an avenue of complaint through the Office for Students via a new ‘Free Speech Champion’. These are positive steps that will further protect freedom of speech on campus.
In the briefing, we’ve summarised the evidence that has already been compiled that free speech is in crisis in Britain’s universities, citing research by the University and College Union, Policy Exchange and ADF International, and we’ve added to this by drawing on the FSU’s case files. Of the 500 or so free speech cases we’ve been involved in over the past year, about 100 have involved university students or academics. We’ve highlighted some of the most significant of these in the appendix to the briefing.
We also consider some of the most common criticisms of the Bill and do our best to rebut them. You can find the new briefing document here.
Trainee teacher spared after FSU intervention over Mohammed cartoons
We’re delighted to report that the trainee teacher at Manchester Metropolitan University who was disciplined for criticising the teaching profession for not standing up for the teacher in Batley who was forced into hiding after showing his students a cartoon of Mohammed will face no further action. After expressing this sentiment in an email to his course supervisor, in which he also said he’d have no hesitation in showing his students a cartoon of Mohammed, he was placed under investigation and threatened with referral to a “fitness to practise” panel, which could have resulted in him being banned from teaching. He is a member of the FSU and asked for our help, and we took up his case, which included writing to the head of the Teacher Education School and accompanying him to a hearing. The University has now decided not to refer him to a “fitness to practise” panel. In an email to us afterwards, he wrote: “Thanks to the FSU I am not going to be disciplined by MMU for blasphemy. I won’t ever forget the only friends I had when it really counted.”
Victory in Kent
We’ve achieved another success, this time at Kent University. A first year student and member of the FSU was placed under investigation after classmates complained about comments he’d made in the course of a debate about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Nothing he said was remotely inflammatory or unreasonable; he just didn’t toe the progressive line. We wrote to the University reminding them of their obligation to uphold freedom of speech and the student will now face no further action.
Defending Free Speech At the University of Abertay
We’ve been busy defending Lisa Keogh, a member of the Free Speech Union and a fourth year law student at Abertay University in Dundee. During a seminar on gender, feminism and the law, she expressed the opinion that women aren’t as strong as men and, for that reason, trans women shouldn’t be able to compete against biological women in mixed martial arts tournaments. Lisa is a mature student and a mother-of-two – as well as the first person in her family to go to university – and wasn’t aware that this common-sense view is considered “hate speech” by woke students. She was duly reported to the university authorities, who placed her under investigation, even though she was in the midst of her final exams.
You can read about Lisa’s case in MailOnline, as well as read an interview with Lisa in Femail and listen to an interview she did on Woman’s Hour. She has attracted widespread support, both in the media – see this piece by Fraser Hudghton, our Case Management Director, and this piece by Jim Spence, a former Rector of Dundee University – and in the House of Commons, where the SNP MP Joanna Cherry has spoken out in her defence. We hoped that Abertay would dismiss Lisa’s case after a preliminary investigation, but instead the University has referred it to a student board, with the hearing due to take place on June 7th.
This is a genuinely shocking example of someone being punished for exercising their lawful right to free speech – and, moreover, for expressing an opinion that the vast majority of people would agree with. As Fraser Myers wrote in the Spectator, “The next time someone tells you campus censorship is a myth, made up by right-wing tabloids and leapt upon by a Tory government keen to wage a ‘culture war’ against the left, tell them to Google ‘Lisa Keogh’.”
Free Speech Champions
In case you missed it, the Free Speech Champions – a joint initiative overseen by the FSU and the Battle of Ideas – organised a great online discussion between some top journalists – Bari Weiss, Helen Lewis, Katie Herzog and Mick Hume – about why journalists working for elite newspapers and broadcasters are becoming less concerned with uncovering the truth and holding the powerful to account and more interested in using their platforms to advance the cause of social justice. You can watch a video recording of that conversation here.
In addition, the Champions have been hard at work defending free speech. You can read articles by them in Areo magazine here, here and here.
And if you want to watch me interviewing Quentin Letts about his new book – Stop Bloody Bossing Me About – in our first online ‘Speakeasy’ you can do that on our YouTube channel here.
Join the FSU Today
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We currently have about 8,200 members, but we want to get to 10,000 by the end of the year. We also hope to open affiliate groups across the Anglosphere – and you can see the website of our New Zealand affiliate here. The United States will be next.