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Charles Moore: Cambridge is a template for defending free speech

Charles Moore, The Daily Telegraph

The vote in favour of true protection for free speech proves that the wokeists are not nearly as numerous as they claim

When I wrote in this space two weeks ago supporting the defenders of free speech at Cambridge University, I thought they would lose. After all, the university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, had opposed their amendment. The university establishment had wanted free speech denied whenever it failed to show “respect” to the ideas and identity of others. Like so many bludgeoned by jiggery-wokery, I assumed this bad view would prevail.

Yet the rebels won last week. The senior members of the university voted, by a margin of roughly 4:1, for three amendments which jettisoned the Toope wording. Respect, said the rebels, cannot be compelled whenever people choose to claim offence; and it is wrong to respect ideas you think are idiotic or evil. They substituted the word “tolerance”: where you cannot respect, you can tolerate.

There are important lessons here. One is the powerfully disparate nature of the victorious coalition. Its eloquent moving spirit, Dr Arif Ahmed, is a libertarian atheist philosopher, but his cause gathered support from feminists persecuted by transgender activists, Christians, conservatives and many scientists angry that their rigorous search for truth might fall foul of identity politics. The role of the Free Speech Union was also significant. So was that of many students (not part of the senior franchise) who were angry at the lack of intellectual freedom.

The vote proves that the wokeists are not nearly as numerous as they claim, and suffer from intellectual weakness when challenged. In academic life – as in museums and much of the public sector and big business – people are frightened that their careers will suffer if they step out of line. They may even be called racists. As a result of the Cambridge ballot – which was secret – they now know they are not alone.

This, in turn, seems to have frightened Professor Toope. When the university disinvited Professor Jordan Peterson in 2019, he justified this, saying that “robust debate” could not happen “when some members of the community are made to feel personally attacked, not for their ideas but for their very identity”. His doctrine has been overthrown, yet Professor Toope welcomes the result of the vote as if it had been what he wanted: “Freedom of speech is a right that sits at the heart of the university. This statement is a robust defence of that right… The statement also makes it clear that is unacceptable to censor, or disinvite, speakers whose views are lawful but may be seen as controversial.” So please will he bring back Professor Peterson’s visiting fellowship?

Professor Toope seems to see which way the wind is blowing. One must hope he will also retreat from his previous praise of the Communist rulers of China, and ensure that his university’s China projects – many reliant on Chinese money – now give platforms to critics of the regime.

As for the wider world – including most universities, which have less democratic governance structures than Cambridge – the vote’s free speech wording should provide a template. If the idea of tolerance were to replace that of enforced “respect”, this would profoundly affect public policy.

Full op-ed