November 18, 2022 - 11:56am


The Cambridge Union’s Debating Chamber was filled to capacity last night with students eager to hear philosopher and UnHerd columnist Kathleen Stock argue in favour of the motion “This house believes in the right to offend”. 

Stock, the author of Material Girls: Why Material Reality Matters for Feminism, was forced to resign from a tenured position at the University of Sussex in 2021, after three years of targeted campaigning by students. They were offended by her view that sex is an immutable biological fact distinct from gender, and that this distinction is frequently important in law and policy.

Before and throughout the debate, trans rights advocates, unhappy with the Union’s decision to platform Stock, loudly protested. Banging on drums and an assortment of makeshift instruments, they chanted, “No TERFs on our turf”. One sign read: “We’re offended. Now what?”, an unfortunately rhetorical question. 

The proposition also included Arif Ahmed, a philosophy fellow at Cambridge and a champion of free speech. Last month, his invitation of gender-critical feminist Helen Joyce to speak at the college was met with a notable backlash among parts of the student body who consider her ‘transphobic’. On top of this, college leadership proudly threw their weight behind this backlash, a decision which supporters of Joyce emphatically denounced. 

In contrast, the motion’s opposition consisted entirely of undergraduate students. A speaker from the floor lamented this discrepancy: “Inviting a huge and polarising figure to debate no invited opposition, only students, is just not good enough,” he said. In response the Union’s president, Lara Brown, clarified that although many speakers were invited to argue in opposition, all declined.

The proposition’s core belief was that while offending people may not be good, the right to do so is. For the opposition, offensive speech was linked inextricably to actual harm. On several occasions, the opposing speakers decried racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, transphobia and homophobia, but never mentioned misogyny as an attitude equally worthy of offence.

An impassioned undergraduate student gave the opening argument by the proposition. But it was immediately obvious that he had chosen instead to argue for the other side.

He began by invoking his own non-binary identity and his motivating support for transgender people, whom he described as “those who offend by their identity […] The mere fact of their existence is the tool by which they offend, through choice or through not”. Refusing all points of information from the audience, he insisted that “the hatred perpetuated by certain people in this room should be a damning indictment on them”. In conclusion, he proclaimed his disgust for Stock. Many booed as he ceded the floor.

Unruffled, Stock stated that what is considered offensive is dependent on individual circumstances and social context. Not everything that is offensive is wrong, she argued, and many shared social attitudes we now recognise as wrong were, historically, considered acceptable – racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, for instance. “I’m not a free speech absolutist,” she concluded, “You can restrict speech on grounds other than offence. You can restrict it on genuine harm.”

The opposition cited Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson and JK Rowling as examples for why restricted speech is necessary. Last year, Ahmed led the charge to re-invite Peterson when the latter’s offer of a visiting fellowship was rescinded in 2019, following the emergence of a photograph showing him standing beside a man wearing an Islamophobic t-shirt. 

When the right to offensive speech is not secure, Ahmed warned, it will invariably be those with the most power who decide what is offensive, not “the minorities or the oppressed people”.

In 2020, the University issued a statement on freedom of speech which supports the right to “express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of intolerance or discrimination”. 

Protesters shouted into their bullhorns, at times making it difficult to hear the speakers. But ultimately, it was the speakers in favour of the motion who won, with Stock and Ahmed securing a 247-72 victory. Free speech may not be flourishing on university campuses, but there was at least a glimmer of hope at last night’s debate.

Naï Zakharia is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.