The University of Cambridge has always recognised freedom of speech as a core value at the heart of its academic endeavour. The University is also a democratic institution, governed by its academic community, and guided through the various committees, including the University Council, to which authority is delegated.

Those two basic principles are important to bear in mind as we navigate our way towards an updated Freedom of Speech Statement, designed to enshrine core values while recognising the need to maintain civility in debate, whether amongst staff, students and visitors or within these groups. Flourishing universities encourage robust debate, challenge accepted norms, scrutinise research findings and work together to discover solutions to global problems. But the growth of social media and the rapid polarisation of our political sphere have demonstrated more than ever that debate in the absence of civility can be not only unproductive but hugely damaging. 

For many decades, freedom of expression was an accepted norm at Cambridge, requiring no formal codification. I wish that were still the case. But the growth in recent years of legislation placing additional responsibilities on universities led us, in 2016, to reconfirm our commitment to freedom of speech in a single statement, while recognising new legal duties under the Prevent legislation that could have impinged on that freedom.

It is this statement which is now being updated in light of a changing legal landscape. Concerns have been raised that the original statement did not sufficiently bolster freedom of speech. Some members of our academic community had questioned whether the balance between freedom of speech and legal duties was correctly and clearly enough expressed.

A revised Statement attempting to clarify some of these issues was proposed earlier this year by our Committee on Prevent and Freedom of Speech, a group that includes academics and students. The new wording followed extensive debate within the Committee, and with members of the Council. An amended text was approved by the Council in March 2020 and was reported to the Regent House, the 7000-strong community of academics and members of the University which has the ultimate say on all significant decisions.

As is their right, a number of members of the Regent House have proposed changes to the text put forward by the Council. Given the complexity of the issues, this was not a surprise. The proposed amendments are now subject to vigorous debate within the University, which has spilled over into the public domain. But many public reports have completely misrepresented the context, and misunderstood the process of what is actually going on. As I write, the amendments are open to a vote of the full Regent House and the Council will of course abide by its result, which will be announced on 9th December. 

As chair of the University Council, I cannot take sides in the debate but I can take satisfaction from the fact that this open, democratic process is occurring. The very existence of this discussion demonstrates to me that free speech is alive and well at Cambridge.

Professor Stephen J Toope

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