Cambridge publishes strong new free speech code.

The University of Cambridge will adopt a strong new Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. 

Universities have been required, since the Education Act (1986), to issue codes of practice setting out how they will secure freedom of speech. In the past, many of these codes have been limited, vague, or focused narrowly on securing freedom of speech for visiting speakers. The Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act (2023) reiterates and strengthens the “code” requirement. 

The University of Cambridge has developed a strong new code of practice. It refers, in detail, and accurately, to the main legislation governing freedom of speech. It states, unambiguously, that protecting freedom of speech ensures that staff and students may be exposed to “research, course material, discussion or speakers’ views that they find offensive, contentious or unacceptable, but are nonetheless within the law”. The code includes a comprehensive list of steps the university will take to secure freedom of speech. 

The single greatest omission from the code of practice is a commitment to institutional neutrality – that is, a commitment to not take official points of view on public affairs. When universities take official points of view on political affairs, they transform themselves into political institutions from which dissenters can “legitimately” be hounded or expelled. A Harvard University internal report has recently recommended that the university should not “issue official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function”. The core function of the university is to ensure and environment where its members can “research, teach, and learn”. 

The new OfS proposed guidance on freedom of speech under the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act – while generally excellent – fails to recommend that universities maintain institutional neutrality. The Cambridge code of practice is intended to “update existing policies to comply with the Act”. 

But despite the omission of institutional neutrality, the new Cambridge code of practice is an exemplar, which other universities would do well to consider.