Some good news: the OfS is looking a lot more proactive
(20.01.23) In the throes of what at times feels a long and [unrewarding] slog, it is wonderful to see some good news. The Office for Students issued an extraordinarily positive statement about free speech shortly before Christmas. It signals a much more proactive approach to pushing universities to improve free speech protection. We are very cautious about talk of the tide turning, but this is a very good sign.
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.
QAA embracing Critical Race Theory and “decolonisation”: free speech aspects
(06.12.22) The QAA has controversially issued revised Benchmark Statements for university courses which incorporate a “decolonisation” agenda into subjects as unlikely as computer science. We have published a statement about the free speech legal and compliance implications and risks for universities of implementing these statements. Great care is going to be needed when implementing the revised Benchmark Statements to ensure compliance with these obligations.
University of Kent: Student and Staff Training Issues
(21.11.22) We spotted some troubling information about what appears to be compulsory student and staff training on EDI issues on Kent’s website. In common with other such so-called training we have seen (including as a condition of matriculation in some cases), the EDI modules state as fact various contested ideological positions (e.g. Critical Race Theory) and then require agreement or acquiescence from students in order to “pass”.
AFFS had already prepared a Briefing Note about the free speech implications of such training for new students which can be found here.
We have written to Professor Karen Cox, the Vice Chancellor at Kent, raising our concerns and enclosing a Freedom of Information Request designed to establish the full facts before we take any further action. See our email here.
What you can do:
- Share our email and Briefing Note with any Kent alumni you know
- Join AFFS if you have not already done so
- If you were at Kent, consider setting-up a Kent University AFFS branch
University of York: Defamation of the Leader of the SDP by student activists
(17.11.22) Defamatory statements were made about Mr William Clouston, the Leader of the SDP, by York University’s LGBTQ+ Network following an invitation for him to speak at the Student Union by the University’s Free Speech Society. Although the meeting went ahead, this sort of behaviour is a worrying trend and certain activists think that their strong personal views about issues of public controversy entitle them to abuse visiting speakers.
We have written to York VC, Professor Charlie Jeffery, both to compliment York’s administrators in not bowing to pressure to cancel the event and to express concern about the behaviour of LBGTQ+ Network. We have also pointed out that, by taking sides on issues where lawful views can widely differ, York may be unwittingly encouraging this sort of behaviour.
AFFS had already prepared Briefing Notes on both student conduct and compulsory EDI training for students.
A copy was among the attachments to our letter to Professor Jeffery.
What you can do:
- Share our email and Briefing Notes with any York alumni you know
- Join AFFS if you have not already done so
- If you were at York, write to Professor Jeffery (at firstname.lastname@example.org) expressing your concern in moderate and factual terms
- If you were at York, consider setting-up a York University AFFS branch
Letter to all Vice-Chancellors
(09.11.22) Following our launch, on 9 November 2022, we wrote to the Vice-Chancellors of English universities to introduce AFFS, explain its work and aims and invite constructive dialogue. See our letter here.
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: https://www.governance.cam.ac.uk/committees/council/Pages/members-listing.aspx
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.
What you can do:
- Share this email with your Cambridge and Caius friends.
- Join AFFS if you have not already done so – https://affs.uk/join
- We urge Cambridge – and Gonville & Caius – alumni to write to their institutions to protest. Please remember: express yourself moderately, and keep to the facts. Alumni care hugely about free speech, but we are not extremists.
Their emails (from public sources):
- Vice-Chancellor: VCO.Enquiries@admin.cam.ac.uk
- Sociology: email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fundraising/alumni: email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Gonville & Caius
- President: Professor Peter Robinson
- Head of Alumni: email@example.com