Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Arif Ahmed MBE, Reader in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College (HEFSB06)

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2021: written evidence

1. I am Reader in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. I have been campaigning for free speech and academic freedom continuously since early 2019 and sporadically for years before that. This evidence outlines two of several threats to free speech in Higher Education: self-censorship and regulation. I am due to give oral evidence on 7 September and I shall be happy then to answer questions on this evidence and to present further evidence if asked.

2. Self-censorship. There is strong evidence that academics are self-censoring – not saying what they think; not pursuing research that interests them – because of the consequences for their careers. The largest recent survey (by the University and Colleges Union) reports 35.5% of academics self-censoring (cf. 19.1% for the EU). As the authors wrote:

Self-censorship at this level appears to make a mockery of any pretence by universities of being paragons of free speech and that of being advocates of unhindered discourse in the pursuit of knowledge and academic freedom. [1]

3. This is consistent with my experience. When in 2020 I circulated a petition to reform Cambridge’s Free Speech Policy (see points 7-8 below), I spoke to many staff and students who supported what I was doing but were afraid to sign anything publicly. Many also told me that they were afraid to:

· question the aims or methods of BLM (the organization)

· defend certain views on transgender issues

· question ‘decolonization’ of university syllabuses

· criticize Israel’s settlements or express concern about the use of military force against Palestinians

· defend pro-life views

· admit that they had voted for, or in any way express support for, Brexit

Students feared ostracism in both social and academic contexts. Academics feared retaliation ranging from ‘mere’ hostility from colleagues, through non-promotion or non-recommendation for membership of professional bodies, to formal disciplinary action.

4. When the secret ballot on my proposals finally took place, the size of the majority supporting me (in one case 1378-208, the biggest turnout since WW2) is itself evidence of self-censorship: concerns about these threats to our freedom are widely felt (as this secret vote shows) but not widely voiced.

5. The problem spreads far beyond Cambridge. This website collects anonymous testimony from self-censoring academics and students across the UK. For instance, one writes:

I’m a student at a U.K. university… [where] there is a transgender woman professor, and the staff seem to be treading on eggshells because of it. Debate is no longer alive within my university. Debate is only allowed for prescribed topics and talking points, almost all of which represent a narrow…. too far left viewpoint. As someone who falls on the centre left, I find this troubling…. As an openly gay man, I felt plunged back into my school days where I was forced to keep aspects of my life, my sexuality, to myself lest I say the wrong thing (even to play devil’s advocate) and find myself the subject of abuse, which I would not be able to tolerate. I suffer with mental health issues and I could not handle that stress. So I too, am silent.

6. Regulation. University leaders seem very keen to impose ill-considered, restrictive and often politicized regulations that restrict the freedom of academics and students to ‘think what they like and say what they think’. Here are two examples from my own experience.

7. Example 1: in March 2020 Cambridge University proposed a ‘free speech’ policy requiring (inter alia):

(a) that academics, students, staff and visitors ‘respect’ the opinions and ‘identities’ of others;

(b) that the University may prohibit speaker events that it reasonably expects to threaten the ‘welfare’ of students, staff or the general public.

The vagueness of ‘respect’, ‘identity’ and ‘welfare’ offered practically endless scope for abuse. One could easily imagine zealous or interested parties using (a) to exclude Richard Dawkins or Noam Chomsky for ‘disrespecting’ Christian or Jewish ‘identities’, or (b) to block Julie Bindel because her views on transgender people threaten their ‘welfare’ in some sense of that word.

8. In June 2020 I spelt out these concerns. In September the University dismissed them without any consultation. I began an initially very lonely but ultimately successful campaign to force a vote that would overturn this policy. Although this outcome was positive, it is disturbing (to put it mildly) that the leadership has so little respect for academic freedom that it could propose something this vague and authoritarian and then try to push it through without modification.

9. Example 2: in May 2021, Cambridge launched a new discrimination and harassment policy, called ‘Mutual Respect’, which encouraged staff and students to make anonymous (not confidential – anonymous) reports of anyone committing ‘micro-aggressions’ or indeed more serious crimes. Even if it resulted in no action, that report could then stay on the accused person’s file for several years and may have to be disclosed to some funding bodies, possibly also to potential employers. Because the reports are anonymous, there could be no credible sanction for submitting a false report. In my view the potential for abuse is as obvious as it is terrifying.

10. The ‘micro-aggressions’ listed include many absurd examples. Appended to his document is the relevant extract. Note the highly political definition of ‘racism’ as something that white people can perpetrate but cannot suffer.

11. Also note the classification of ‘endorsing religious stereotypes’ as micro-aggressive. But some such stereotypes are harsh but (in my view) fair. How can I do my job (of teaching philosophy) if I cannot discuss them? How can a student ask a question in a class on religion if she is frightened that someone else in the class will (anonymously) report on her?

12. In conclusion: I fear that self-censorship and over-reaching (if well-intentioned) regulations will if unchecked destroy free speech and academic freedom in British Higher Education. I believe that a duty on HE institutions to promote free speech, and a credible mechanism for holding to account those that do not, though plainly not enough by themselves, could be the first steps towards recreating a culture of robust and completely open debate without which a university education loses much of its point.

Arif Ahmed MBE

University of Cambridge



Racism is a system of oppression, woven into the fabric of societies, institutions (such as universities or mass media), processes, procedures, people's values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. It is a system of advantage that sets whiteness as the norm, manifesting in societies' valuing and promoting (implicitly or explicitly) being white. It is a system where people from racially minoritised backgrounds are more likely than white people to face multiple obstacles in life, from being targets of direct or indirect discrimination and micro aggressions…


Micro-aggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that members of marginalized groups experience in their day-to-day interactions with others who are often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way. They can range from overt and easy to recognise one-off instances to numerous brief, small remarks and acts sending denigrating messages to people and are linked to an individual’s characteristics or status. Micro- aggressions can be intentional or unintentional.

‘Micro-aggression’ is not a legal term and such behaviour will not necessarily amount to harassment under the Equality Act (2010). This will depend on the facts of each case. Whether such behaviour amounts to harassment, is likely to depend on the effect it has had on the victim.

Examples of micro-aggressions include:

· 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.

· Mistaking a staff member from a racially minoritised group as a PA of a white person with whom they share an office

· Backhanded compliments

· Avoiding or turning one’s back on certain people

· Asking someone ‘where are you really from?’

· Assuming intellectual inferiority based on race

· Catcalling or sexual objectification

· Asking a black person if that is their ‘natural’ hair

· Endorsing religious stereotypes

· Casual use of derogatory slurs

· Being misgendered (especially after sharing one’s pronouns)

· Referring to a woman as a ‘girl’


1 September 2021

[1] Karran, T. and L. Mallinson. 2017. Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context. A Report for the University and Colleges Union (P. 55).


Prepared 13th September 2021