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Cambridge University’s Ugly Failure to Protect Free Speech, Jordan Peterson Edition

Cambridge University’s Ugly Failure to Protect Free Speech, Jordan Peterson Edition

Opposing viewpoints should never be squashed by political correctness, the heckler’s veto, or the delicate feelings of offended students.

The suppression of free speech on campus is not just an American problem. This week, Cambridge University, one of the world’s oldest and greatest, showed it is just as feckless as Yale, Berkeley, and Middlebury. Cambridge decided to cancel an invited speech by Jordan Peterson, a prominent psychology professor at the University of Toronto. Portland State couldn’t have done it better.

Millions have watched Peterson’s talks on YouTube and know he is serious, thoughtful, and brutally honest. The only threat he poses to students is voicing unpopular views. That, ironically, is why Cambridge won’t let him speak. His crime is disparaging political correctness, virtue signaling, and the herd mentality that punishes discordant opinions. He compounds the crime by not apologizing.

In cancelling Peterson’s talk, Cambridge is failing in one of its primary educational duties: upholding free discourse and open debate. That is a core value of higher education, and it is imperiled across the West. Either universities don’t understand their mission, or they are bowing to political pressure. Neither is acceptable.

Cambridge, like all universities that suppress speech, smothered its illiberal position with gobs of moral virtuosity. Our university “is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot.” Nor is there any place, it seems, for cognitive diversity. That kind of diversity doesn’t count.

The Cambridge Student Union enthusiastically endorsed the cancellation. “His work and views are not representative of the student body,” they said, “but one that works in opposition to the principles of the University.”

Those views are the funeral oration for free and open inquiry. “Inclusiveness” is a fine value, but it should never prevent free speech. The best answer to “bad speech” is almost always “more speech.” Ask tough questions. Offer an intelligent rebuttal. Schedule your own speech. Organize a protest rally (outside the lecture hall, not inside). Ask Peterson or someone who shares his views to debate. But do not shout down his speech or prohibit it by fiat. It does not matter if his views are “not representative of the student body.” That’s actually a good reason for inviting him. Who knows, you might change your mind or sharpen your arguments.

Opposing viewpoints should never be squashed by political correctness, the heckler’s veto, or the delicate feelings of offended students. Any university administrator who does not understand that is unqualified to hold the post. Replace him.

Of course, not all speech deserves protection. But the restrictions should be narrow. Fortunately, we don’t have to devise them from scratch. They are all are encoded in America’s extensive jurisprudence on the First Amendment. Although the United Kingdom has different speech laws, American restrictions are a sensible guide to the limits. Your speech is not protected, for example, if it directly threatens someone. You cannot use a bullhorn outside a dormitory at 2 a.m. These are known as “time, place, and manner” restrictions. The courts say they must be narrowly drawn and content-neutral. Aside from those limits, free speech should reign, whether the site is Cambridge, England, or Cambridge, Massachusetts (where the same problems abound).

Nowhere is free speech more important than at universities, where debating different viewpoints is integral to teaching and research. Unpopular views should be confronted by alternative arguments, not shouted down or simply banned. John Stuart Mill offers the best explanation. He was not a Cambridge man (he studied at University College, London) but his short book, “On Liberty” (1859), is still the wisest defense of free speech and its importance in a free society. Cambridge students and administrators might find it worth a glance.

University administrators should be leaders in protecting such speech, not suppressing it. They have two other, equally important duties. They need to teach those principles to incoming students and ensure the principles are upheld on campus.

What should Cambridge do now?

  1. The University should immediately overturn its ban on Jordan Peterson’s speech and reschedule it.
  2. A senior university official should publicly explain why the cancellation was a mistake, making clear that Cambridge actually values free speech and will not allow its other important values, such as inclusiveness, to suppress unpopular views.
  3. Explain why free speech is central to the university’s educational mission.
  4. Allow students and faculty to schedule speakers from all viewpoints, as long as they meet ordinary “time, place, and manner” requirements.
  5. Clarify the rules that apply to students, faculty, and staff regarding free speech at the university. Make clear that the university takes these rules seriously and will impose significant penalties for violating them.
  6. If university staff and administrators are unwilling to support free speech, replace them with people who will. As individuals, everyone at the university is entitled to her own views about free speech and its limits. As officers of the university, however, they are acting on behalf of the institution. In that capacity, they should uphold the university’s rules promoting free discourse.
  7. Enforce those rules. Punish anyone who is found guilty of shouting down, harassing, or obstructing a speaker.

Let the debates begin. They are essential to a flourishing free society.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected]


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Peterson loses me when he gets too deep into Jungian mysticism, but, most of what he says and writes seems little more than basic psychological hygiene.

To listen to his opponents you’d think he represents Stormfront, or something equally odious. Overall it’s just all but impossible to conceive of Peterson as any sort of radical, but in any case he’s surely far less radical than many of the tenured nutcases found on essentially all elite college campuses.

The question at some level remains whether universities can be reformed, or whether the only available path for honest, non-politicized scholarship will be to somehow establish parallel institutions where such scholarship can be performed.

A start would be to break the accredited-school lock on credentialing, perhaps by substituting comprehensive exams as evidence one has the education one claims to have.

For although research can be (and is) done outside universities, ultimately the power of these organizations to command respect and vast amounts of money rests on their monopoly on conferring academic credentials.

    JusticeDelivered in reply to Albigensian. | March 22, 2019 at 7:34 pm

    “A start would be to break the accredited-school lock on credentialing, perhaps by substituting comprehensive exams as evidence one has the education one claims to have.”

    This would also put a stop to meritless degrees, put an end to the circus of affirmative action.

    I like to see anyone succeed on merit. I am fed up with people who lack merit being promoted far beyond what Laurence J. Peter “Peter Principle” exposed.

    Dexterdog101 in reply to Albigensian. | March 25, 2019 at 8:37 am

    A simpler solution – stop tax payer funded ‘higher’ education. When prospects have to pay, out of their pocket, for their education, their choices are less likely to be gender or ethnic studies and more likely to focus on course work and training that will prepare them for a job.

LukeHandCool | March 22, 2019 at 3:49 pm

“Inclusiveness” to me means anyone can voice his or her disagreement with Dr. Peterson after he speaks.

Cambridge University demonstrates its commitment to inclusiveness by excluding some voices.

AA works the same way. “We’re demonstrating our commitment against discrimination by intentionally discriminating against some.”

The Stalinists bark and spineless, over-paid university administrators comply.

He is yesteryear’s liberal. He warns against diversity (i.e. color judgments including racism), sex chauvinism (e.g. feminism, masculinism), and political congruence (“=”). Does he support selective-child (the mother of all PCs)?

One of the reasons that our Founders felt it was so important to include Freedom of Speech as one of the very first rights enumerated in our Constitution is that there is NO SUCH THING in the UK. In more recent years the UK government has incorporated EU rules regarding Freedom of Expression but there are a huge number of exceptions.

Just one more thing that we should thank our lucky stars for.

Preaching to the choir. But I’ll still type out all the Obvious Basic Stuff. Because at this point that’s all any of us can do.

House republicans had eight plus years to do something about university censorship and yet did nothing.

And the same do-nothing republican grifters allowed leftist dominated social media companies free rein to censor-deplatform their politcal rivals.

And it takes Trump (for decades a center left east coaster) to draft a document forcing leftist university administrators to allow free speech on campuses or lose federal funding. Yet this document can be rendered moot by the next democrat party POTUS.

inspectorudy | March 22, 2019 at 6:30 pm

No surprise here. Great Britain has been lost to the world as it once was. It is so politically correct now that black is white and muslims are peaceful. I thought Brexit would be their salvation but it looks like it may never happen.

Of COURSE they villify people like Jordan Peterson.

What else do they do for a living?

legacyrepublican | March 23, 2019 at 7:54 am

People forget that the most vocal opponent of Quantum Theory at times was Albert Einstein.

Yet, because Einstein challenged the nature of the theory in debates with Niels Bohr and others who developed the theory, the theorists had to up their game in order to show the theory of Quantum Mechanics to be relevant and true.

Had Einstein been allowed to simply silence the debate by stating it didn’t comport with his values, CERN would not exist and science would not have advanced.

The furtherance of knowledge requires testing and retesting until a new level of truth can be found.

Political Correctness is the bastion of stagnation and decay where the positive advancement of the human condition is seen as folly and evil. It is the forced acceptance of doctors telling us that smoking tobacco is good for us while it destroys us. It is the forced acceptance of Hilter telling us who is human and who is sub-human while calling it an advancement of the human condition.

If you ask me, and I understand no one has, this oppression of speech on campus started with the debate on Evolution. It may be just s a small piece of the puzzle but I believe it is where the left was emboldened with no consequences for oppression. Anyone who believes in Creation or Intelligent design knows that the character assassination and that funding would be pulled if they spoke out against the Evolution narrative used to deny any suggestion that there is a God!

Once they learned with the backing of the University they could suppress speech and crush different or unpopular ideas, it was open warfare on speech. Yes, I know that Peterson is an evolutionist but I don’t believe he would suppress or deny the opportunity to have an open debate. He makes a case for evolution with his Lobster argument about similarities in brains and serotonin based on evolution. I would argue common designer not common ancestor but it’s just my opinion!

Your speech is not protected, for example, if it directly threatens someone.

And that is defined very narrowly. It must be an actual threat to harm some specific person, that was intended to cause the person to seriously fear such harm, and that a reasonable person would interpret as a real and serious communication of an intent to inflict such harm.

Peasepudding | March 25, 2019 at 8:13 am

PC limitations on freedom of expression are far more restrictive in the UK than in America. The police spend more time looking for “hatred” on social media than they do fighting out of control knife crime. The home of free speech has made a 180 degree turn, regrettably…oh, unless you’re going after Israel, that is.

As a number of commentators have noted, Britain has far less protections for free speech than the U.S. Allreaders of Legal Insurrection should read also the Gatestone Institute blog–there you will find that any statement offensive to the WOGS will land you in jail. Even so, I had thought better of Cambridge. University administrators everywhere are spineless scumbags–and so increasingly are faculty members..

Latus Dextro | March 25, 2019 at 3:50 pm

Free speech is long done in the UK; hasn’t anyone noticed? It’s done in Canada, NZ and Australia. The Left have successfully inserted their terminal infection upon the educators, news propagators, legislators and administrators. The hoi-polloi have resentfully surrendered. The resultant division, exclusion and inequality beggars belief. Segregation and the loss of the right to hear abound.
Hearteningly though, it is reassuring that Brits particularly, and Western society in general may well be “saved” from the Left from an entirely unexpected quarter.