Overall statusFree speech officer?Multiple failings?Acknowledges failings?EDI to Free Speech Staff Ratio
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Row at Cambridge about Nathan Cofnas 

(26.04.24) You may have read about the row at Cambridge about Nathan Cofnas’ unpopular views about whether intelligence is genetic. 

We have written a warning letter to the University here to the effect that they must take great care ensure that they do not breach their legal obligations to protect Mr Cofnas’ free speech. 

Emmanuel College have already sacked him, and we will be writing to them about that.

We subsequently wrote to his college, Emmanuel: see our letter here. It makes interesting reading: the College may get away with sacking him, as a result of the current poor regulation of colleges: this is about to change on 1 August, and our letter explains to the College how it would have clearly acted unlawfully, unless Mr Cofnas himself had.  Sacking him for being “against EDI” is the most extraordinary, and revealing, aspect of this whole saga.

Failures at Cambridge about a cancelled event at St John’s

(12.07.23) A screening of a film, ‘Birthgap – Childless World’, that was due to take place at St John’s College in May was subject to a campaign of abuse and threatened severe disruption by activists, on the basis that they believed it to be (among other things) “misogynistic”, “anti-feminist”, “transphobic” and “bigoted”. It was eventually cancelled by the College.

The College appears to have failed in various ways to protect the event. We have liaised with the College about this, and we welcome the interaction we have had with it, which has been useful to clarify issues and enabled us to adjust our views on the events and their implications, broadly in the College’s favour. The letter we have written to the College is here. We urge that the College addresses the issues we have raised: we are happy applauding good governance action in recognising and setting a problem right. But we are disappointed not to have any assurances that it will be taking the issues we raise seriously, and acting on them appropriately.

The University did nothing about these breaches of its rules, and brushed the organiser off with inappropriate excuses for inaction. Amazingly, it said that this was a College matter so not its responsibility, which accorded with neither the facts nor its own rules. The appearance created is that the people responsible did not want to bother to intervene. It failed seriously and obviously to comply with its legal duties to protect free speech. Its failures are much more serious than the College’s. Unlike the College, the University has not engaged at all about the issues we have raised, and gives the distinct impression that it does not intend to do anything about these issues.  

We have written to the University in these terms about its failures, and will be following up. On the basis that it will continue to do nothing – the apparent lack of care for their obligations is profoundly depressing – we will be reporting it to the Office for Students for serious free speech failures.

Update: Cambridge. We have reported them to the Office for Students

(26.04.23) Despite repeated attempts to get the University of Cambridge to set matters right re their compliance and governance failures regarding the Helen Joyce affair, we are not aware of any action having been taken and have therefore reported our findings to the Office for Students. Please see our letter here.

Dr Helen Joyce

(26.04.23) We continue to pressurise Cambridge about their free speech failures regarding a meeting involving the gender-critical author Dr Helen Joyce (please see our letter re Cambridge here).

It has become clear to us that universities are used to keeping their heads down when a row happens over their free speech failures, and waiting it for it to go away, relying on their effective unaccountability. This is changing, with the law becoming more demanding and the likes of AFFS on their case. We have learned to plug on: our job is to make failures painful, so we need to do just that.

Update: Cambridge, Caius College and the Helen Joyce Affair update

(22.12.22) Neither AFFS nor (so far as we know) the public have heard anything material from Cambridge about their apparent free speech contraventions. We have written – again – to Cambridge’s Council to keep the pressure up.

We will be staying on this case. Assuming that there is no change in their approaches, AFFS will report what has happened, and the failures of the management and Council of both institutions, to do anything about it, to the appropriate authorities.

(12.12.22) Neither AFFS nor (so far as we know) the public have heard anything material from Caius about their apparent free speech contraventions.

We have written again to Caius. The longer it does nothing, the worse it looks from a governance point of view, and we are pointing that out.

Update: Cambridge and Gonville & Caius free speech problems (November 2022)

Reports say that Caius refused to circulate information on the Helen Joyce talk, which appears to be in effect discriminatory against people who hold the protected characteristic of gender critical views. This is directly attributable to the College, so the question of whether the “private” email should be attributed to the College does not arise in this case. We wrote to the College’s Council about the very real issues regarding free speech protection, and they appear to be doing nothing, or at least saying nothing. This is turning into a governance issue. Are they relying on their being effectively unaccountable? We’ll stay on the case.

Nor have AFFS or the public heard anything material from Cambridge about its apparent free speech contraventions. It has dug itself into an unnecessary hole: by not promptly addressing the issues raised and recognising that that it needs to admit errors and improve its performance as regards free speech protection and communicating that recognition, it is making what could have been a moderate embarrassment into something significantly more damaging, including questions about its governance. We have written to Cambridge’s Council – see our letter here.

If any Cambridge alumni have the energy to write to the Vice-Chancellor, Chairman of the Council or independent members, it would help add some pressure. Their details are here:

Update: Gonville & Caius and its free speech problems (November 2022)

The College has been strangely silent. They sent a bland the statement to (we assume) staff and students as well as alumni.

We are pleased that the content and tone of this further statement are more careful and conciliatory than the original email from the Master and Senior Tutor that sparked the current problems.

Nonetheless, the new statement does not even attempt to engage with the problematic issues created by the original email, and we regard this statement as well below the standards one would hope the College would set itself. The public (including alumni) are extremely concerned about the failures at our universities to protect free speech appropriately, as exemplified by recent events at Caius. They expect the concerns raised to be addressed directly, not avoided.

We think that the College has dug itself into an unnecessary hole by not addressing the issues raised and recognising that that it really needs to improve its performance as regards free speech protection. It should stop digging.

We have issued a detailed statement detailing our concerns (and see the College’s recent statement) here.

See our statement about the Equality Act and the Forstater case here.

Our first intervention: Gonville & Caius and the Sociology Department at Cambridge (October 2022)

The Master and Senior Tutor at Gonville & Caius, Cambridge, recently made ill-advised statements about the views of Dr Helen Joyce, the gender-critical author, and the meeting at the College at which she was due to speak. They said that they consider Dr Joyce’s views to be “hateful to members of our community”. 

Since the landmark Forstater case, Dr Joyce’s views count as ‘protected characteristics’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. 

We believe that, while these statements were presented as having been issued in their private capacities, the statements are likely to have caused the College to act unlawfully, contrary to its Public Sector Equality Duty. Further, by describing these protected views in the way they did, they (a) sent a clear message that holding these views is unacceptable within the College and likely to be subject to negative consequences, with the clear effect of being likely to suppress the expression of those views within the College, and (b) were complicit in the creation of a hostile environment for a visiting speaker with a protected characteristic.

We have written to remonstrate with them, and have urged them to show more care and judgement, and use more moderate language, in their handling of equalities and free speech issues going forward.

See our letter to the Master of Caius here.

Not to be outdone, the Head of Sociology, Prof Manali Desai, issued highly inappropriate statements about the event at Gonville and Caius at which Dr Helen Joyce was due to speak, in which she described information which had been circulated about it as “potentially harmful material” and apologised for circulating it and stated a resolve not to share similar material again.

The clear import of her email was that:

  • She regards certain viewpoints as unacceptable and not appropriate to put in front of her students and other departmental participants, with the clear implication that holding these views is unacceptable within the department. By describing these protected views in the way that she did, she was likely complicit (we accept probably inadvertently so) in the creation of what reports indicate was a very hostile and intimidating environment for a visiting speaker with a protected characteristic, i.e. Dr Joyce.
  • She intends not to share information on upcoming events of certain natures which offend participants within the department, whilst sharing information about other events. This clearly discriminates against people who have unpopular viewpoints or want to put on what would be unpopular events.

Her communication appears to be a doubly unlawful action on the part of the University, as a contravention of its Public Sector Equality Duty and as contrary to the University’s legal duty to secure free speech under the Education (No.2) Act 1986.

We have written to remonstrate with her, and urged her to:

  • issue a statement confirming that she is aware of her contraventions and setting out the measures she will take to set them right and apologising to those who have been disadvantaged by them; and
  • show more care and judgement in her handling of equalities and free speech issues going forward.

See our letter to the Head of Sociology here.

To say that there has been a storm is an understatement. It has been much reported by the press, with our letters quoted from. The Free Speech Union is also raising governance/compliance issues. We are aware of a lot of alumni having written in, some stating plans to cut their support.