Freedom of speech could be “infringed” by equality and diversity legislation, the leader about to become the new tsar has warned on the issue.
Professor Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge lecturer who is short-listed to become the government’s advocate for free speech, said “well-meaning” initiatives to promote inclusion could ultimately undermine discussion and debate.
Downing Street announced plans to create the position last year, following a series of disputes over the so-called “cancellation culture” at universities.
Prof. Ahmed, a philosophy professor at Cambridge, recently found himself at the center of a controversy over an invitation he sent to Helen Joyce, a gender-critical feminist, to speak to students at his college.
Ms Joyce argued that men and women have been “redefined” by transgender activists and that laws and policies have been “transformed to privilege self-identified gender identity over biological sex.”
The event sparked large campus protests, with LGBTQ representatives from the college saying they were “unanimously disgusted by the platforming of such views.”
Rector of the university, prof. Pippa Rogerson, described Ms Joyce’s views as “hateful” and promised to join the student boycott of the event.
Professor Ahmed said the saga showed that there are sometimes “older people in universities who very often have well-meaning, goals for the university and for colleges that come from a place of genuine concern for equality and diversity and a desire to protect minorities”.
However, he added: “I think these good intentions can sometimes be subverted by small groups of people who can use this as a way to shut down legitimate debate and legitimate free speech.”
Prof. Ahmed was recently appointed to the board of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which means he will be among the experts responsible for enforcing equality laws.
Speaking on his own behalf, he described how recent events in Cambridge were just one way in which equality and diversity laws and initiatives “risk of being misapplied or misunderstood in ways that threaten free speech”.
He told The Telegraph: “We’ve seen an illustration of what could have been another of these cases – it could have been a case where the event was shut down, prevented by well-meaning people.
“Simply because they have been influenced in the wrong direction by a small group of people who believe that the best way to protect rights is to shut down anyone who speaks on the other side, which is a mistake.”
A “disturbing” shift in attitudes over the years
Professor Ahmed said there had been a “disturbing” shift in people’s attitudes over the years, leading to society placing less importance on freedom of expression. He added that one such change is the attitude of young people and their “complacency” about the issue.
“Most students are not interested in locking up anyone, they want to get degrees – but a small number of highly politically motivated actors who believe the best way to promote their political goals is to lock up anyone on the other side,” he said.
Prof. Ahmed is on the shortlist for the government’s new free speech czar, which would give him the authority to investigate any such violations at universities and advise the higher education watchdog on imposing fines.
The selected candidate will be appointed to the board of the Office of Student Affairs and will investigate possible violations of legal obligations related to freedom of speech, e.g.
The position comes under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is currently going through Parliament and which ministers hope will receive Royal Assent early this year.