By Tamara Berens
King’s Libertarian Society are launching our Abolish Safe Spaces at KCLSU Campaign to raise awareness of the authoritarian nature of our Student Union and the danger of the ‘Safe Space’ culture which pervades student campus events.
On the 18th of October, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP addressed the King’s College London Conservative Association, and a group of over 100 students at the university. From my perspective in the audience, there were students of all degrees, from all across London and from many different political backgrounds, all excited to hear the speaker and pose questions during the Q&A. However, the convivial atmosphere of the event, and indeed the autonomy of the Conservative Association, were dampened by the imposition of the so called Safe Space Policy.
The excessive, authoritarian influence of the Student Union through the Safe Space Policy is damaging to free speech, the time of students who organise events and the resources of the Union.
The issue is often characterised as a ‘no-platforming’ problem, but that is in fact not the case. Although KCLSU does not explicitly no-platform speakers, the danger is rather the obstacles, in principle and practice,that the Safe Space policy places in the way of free discussion at student events. It is great that speakers are allowed to come on campus; but they should be able to speak freely, with the organising society in control of the topic, chair and paradigm of the event.
The ‘Safe Space’ policy holds that certain ‘ideologies’ and ‘cultures’ should be protected, which is antithetical to the purpose of the university. Students at university should embrace academic freedom by challenging themselves to debate and discuss their ideologies and beliefs freely. As students at King’s we are all part of KCLSU, and therefore this policy represents us and how we construct our events on campus. We are meant to be studying at an institution geared towards new ideas, progress and academic freedom. How can we possibly do it justice unless we are able to refute bad and discriminatory ideas with free speech?
As President of the Israel Society at King’s, I have witnessed how the policy can easily be used selectively due to Union bias. The KCLSU claims the policy is primarily ‘anti-harassment’. However, the Policy itself, as well as Safe Space Marshals, has presided over events where students have in fact been physically at risk. In the presence of Safe Space Marshals in January 2016, former Israeli Security Agency head Ami Ayalon was speaking at King’s when protestors smashed a window and set off fire alarms in order to prevent the event from going ahead. Furthermore, those in charge of implementing the policy are individuals who naturally have their own political bias and opinions. Politically elected officers of the student union or the vetted, employed marshals are not, and cannot by their nature, be impartial; how can we ensure complaints made of breaches against the Safe Space policy are dealt with in both a fair and neutral way?. In order to test this, as part of Israel Society I made a complaint about an event last February 2017, where speakers justified terrorism against women and children and made comments which could be deemed incitement to violence. During the event, a friend tried texting the Safe Space marshal on a number provided to see if they would respond- they didn’t. After the event, I approached the Head of Operations of the Student Union to complain about speech which made me feel far more than ‘discriminated’ against as a pro-Israel student; it made me feel threatened for my life. I was told that nothing could be done to act on this as the Student Union could not be ‘political’. When did deploring terrorism against civilians become a politicised issue, rather than one of common humanity?
The ‘Safe Space’ policy denotes physical security yet refused to consider support for terrorism as an issue which fell under its remit, whilst allowing student events to be physically disrupted by protestors. King’s Israel Society found last year that there was a concerted effort by the Student Union to treat our events differently to other student society events on campus, by imposing restrictions and requirements such as having impartial chairs at our events, having a Safe Space Policy and Marshals present, ticketing our events via KCLSU, and so on.
I hope that the Campaign to Abolish Safe Space at KCLSU will raise awareness over the excessive authoritarian nature of the student union, so that students can begin to regain the autonomy and freedom they deserve when organising their events.