When I arrived at Cambridge, I thought I was joining a bastion of free speech and robust debate. I was too quiet, too concerned about giving offence, too conciliatory – but Cambridge will knock that out of me, I said to myself.
Instead, I’ve found that my university experience so far does its level best to knock those qualities into you. Just ask Kevin Price — the porter at Clare College whose job has been under threat from a student campaign since he resigned as Labour Councillor in October. Mr. Price has worked at the university for more than a decade and served the people of King’s Hedges city ward for almost as long. According to our student paper Varsity, he resigned “in protest of a motion to support transgender rights” — a cut and dried case of transphobia.
Yet, had they bothered to watch his resignation speech, they would have seen how compassionate and nuanced it was. He agreed with much of the motion, particularly its assertion that “trans rights are human rights.” He could not, however, stomach its glaring omission of women’s concerns about the impact of societal and legislative changes on sex-based rights. There has never been any suggestion of Mr. Price discriminating against trans students but — within days — The Cambridge University Students’ Union was calling for him to be sacked.
Many of us watched these events unfold with concern and disgust. Against a backdrop of student politics obsessed with privilege, it felt surreal to see a group of Cambridge students calling for an employee to lose his livelihood for doing as his conscience dictates. Despite this, student journalism demonstrated no visible backlash. The impression I get from my peers is that they think he must have done something to deserve it — harassed someone perhaps, or incited violence. Why else would Varsity have reported the story with such evident bias, without the slightest nod to opposing views? The Cambridge Student, our other major publication, has similarly remained deafeningly silent throughout.
The answer seems to be a combination of prejudice and cowardice. I wrote an article in defence of Mr. Price intending to submit it to Varsity, but soon learnt that a similar pitch had already been refused in a bid to avoid drawing criticism. I then submitted it to The Cambridge Student, whose comment editor agreed that open, reasoned discussion was vital. But all hope of publication finally died on Friday night, when TCS were bullied into removing an article on a related topic — condemning the tidal wave of misogynistic abuse directed at JK Rowling in recent months — after it produced outrage in a student Facebook group. The article, which criticised the silence of so-called progressives in the face of rape and death threats sent to Rowling, was “unacceptable” and “appalling,” the commenters said.
This leaves Cambridge in an unenviable position — neither student publication will publish anything that deviates even slightly from the accepted dogma. This is the inevitable outcome of an identity politics which views language as more harmful than behaviour or legislation, which has shifted the focus of activism from protesting injustice to policing language and even thought. CUSU now teaches new students to write off opposing views rather than address the arguments they contain, and the harm done to Kevin Price is considered negligible, even justified, by the community he has always served.
The curtailment of free speech, meanwhile, has become impossible to deny — at least, for anyone without a vested interest in doing so.