Tamara Berens
Published in post

The Campaign to Abolish Safe Space at KCLSU

For at least two years, King’s College London Student Union (KCLSU) has been employing Safe Space Marshals whose role it is to implement our university’s ‘Safe Space Policy’ at student events. The ‘Safe Space Policy’, while masquerading as an ‘anti-harassment’ policy, is in fact designed to control student society events and police emotion and speech. It sets out that there are certain protected characteristics which students should not be able to criticise. The wording holds: ‘KCLSU believes all students should be free from intimidation or harassment, resulting from prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of… ideology or culture, or any other form of distinction’ and is deeply problematic as it protects the status of student ideologies and cultures, which should not be above scrutiny.

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. In the audience were students of all subjects, from all across London and from many different political backgrounds at the event to listen to what the speaker had to say, to challenge his ideas and to put forward arguments during the Q&A.

Whilst Rees-Mogg shared his thoughts to a group of interested and academic students, at the back of the room sat the three Safe Space Marshals. These are people employed by the Student Union to police any speech deemed ‘unsafe’ during a student society organised event- they are payed over twelve pounds an hour for a job which essentially involves babysitting university students. Before the event had begun they printed out KCLSU’s ‘Safe Space Policy’ and placed copies of it all around the room, as well as ensuring that the organiser of the event made an announcement about the Policy.

Rees-Mogg laughed at the situation and the idea that as an elected politician, he might have anything to say which would infringe upon student ‘Safety’. He carried on the talk, where a hearty and lively debate ensued. However, despite his ability to speak freely during the actual event, the valuable time and autonomy that was taken from the Society organisers in the running of the event is deeply unjust. The excessive authoritarian influence of the Student Union through the ‘Safe Space Policy’ is damaging to the rights of students to associate freely, as well as to free speech. In order to challenge this, King’s Libertarian Society are launching our ‘Abolish Safe Space at KCLSU’ campaign.

The issue at hand is not a problem of speakers who have been no-platformed in the past, but rather the obstacles, in principle and practice, that the Safe Space Policy places in the way of free discussion at student events. Speakers on campus should be able to speak freely, with the organising society in control of the topic, chair and paradigm of the event.

The university used to be the primary institution for promoting change in society- now ‘Safe Spaces’ threaten this by encouraging the infantilisation of students over academic progress. The notion that those attending a university require supervision when carrying out events is deeply patronising. Student society events should be a place where university students can further develop their academic ideas and interests as adults. As students enrolled at the university in the first place, there is no logical reason why their activities should need monitoring.

Rather than explicitly no platforming speakers, KCLSU uses the ‘Safe Space Policy’ which they describe as an ‘anti-harassment policy’ in order to control events that student societies put on. While a university should and is expected to safeguard people’s physical safety on campus, the Policy itself does not even touch on physical safety. It has not prevented physical violence disrupting the freedom of speech of visiting speakers from breaking out at the university in the past. In January 2016 with Safe Space Marshals present, a window was smashed and fire alarms set off on campus grounds when an Israeli speaker came to the university to address the Israel Society, and the event had to be called off. Therefore, although the words ‘Safe Space’ denote physical security, in reality the policy relates primarily and misleadingly to the policing of speech and emotion over physical safety.

Our campaign aims to explore student reaction at our university to the infringement of freedom of speech on campus. Students are often wrongfully depicted in the media as embracing policies such as ‘Safe Space’, when in fact we have received a wide range of supportive messages from across the university community denouncing the ‘Safe Space’ culture. A university should be a place where students feel intellectually stimulated and challenged- no idea or culture should gain protected status over another protected.

There is no feasible way to reform the policy, as having a policy around speech itself should not be within the remit of any organisation dealing with student events, unless that speech breaks the law.

The Campaign to Abolish Safe Space at KCLSU hopes that we can change the way students on campus are represented in the media and ultimately, we hope to pressure King’s College London Student Union to reconsider its Safe Space policy.

Tamara Berens

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