Letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University

The language the Tudor historian David Starkey used in an interview with the young journalist Darren Grimes crossed the line, as he admitted when he apologised for it. He described it as “deplorably inflammatory” and a “bad mistake”. But did he really deserve to be subjected to what George Orwell described as the “Two Minutes Hate”? In his public apology, the historian said he had lost “every distinction and honour acquired in a long career” – a heavy price to pay for uttering one offensive word. Among the positions he lost was his Honorary Fellowship of Fitzwilliam College and that left me puzzled as to what standard Cambridge academics are being held to, given that a week earlier Dr Priyamvada Gopal, also a Fellow of a Cambridge college, was supported by the University after she tweeted “White Lives Don’t Matter”. “The University defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial,” it said. That’s a laudable principle, but why wasn’t Dr Starkey granted the same licence? We have written to Professor Stephen Toope, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, seeking clarification.

UPDATE: On 30th July, Prof Toope responded to our letter as follows:

Dear Mr Young,

I am grateful for your letter.

Earlier this year, our University Council approved a Statement on Free Speech Principles, which reiterates that the University of Cambridge:

1. is fully committed to the right of freedom of speech as a fundamental aspect of University life;
2. takes account of the statutory frameworks within which freedom of speech must or may be circumscribed, but will not obstruct speech that is lawful;
3. encourages its staff, students and visitors to engage in robust, challenging, evidence-based and civil debate as a core part of academic enquiry and wider University activity, even if they find the viewpoints expressed to be disagreeable, unwelcome or distasteful;
4. expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the differing opinions of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression;
5. expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination;
6. expects that neither speakers nor listeners should have reasonable grounds to feel censored or intimidated; and
7. has issued, and keeps under review, a University Statement on Freedom of Speech, a Code of Practice on Meetings and Public Gatherings on University Premises, and related Guidance for Booking Meetings and Events, which together set out the University’s detailed policy framework and operational procedures for the management of issues relating to the exercise of the right to freedom of speech.

The University and Colleges are fully committed to these principles. We will continue to assert the fundamental importance of freedom of speech within the law, and academic freedom more generally, as essential to the University of Cambridge and its Colleges.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen

Professor Stephen J Toope
Vice-Chancellor

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