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Safe Spaces and Thuggish Violence at King’s College London

Kings College London (Wikimedia Commons)
The crisis of free speech on campus is not limited to the U.S.

King’s College London’s student union has a “Safe Space Policyenforced by marshals who are paid the equivalent of $16 an hour to restrict free speech on campus. Under the policy, a speaker or student can be forced to leave a room if they are accused of using speech that discriminates against someone on the basis of ideology, culture, gender, race, religion, or age, among other characteristics. These categories are so ill-defined that almost any speech could be deemed a violation of the policy. The rationale is that if students have the unequivocal right to shut down those who offend them, the university can create a “Safe Space” where everyone is emotionally protected at all times. The administration believes that this approach is key to keeping student satisfaction high and preventing unrest on campus. But declaring the majority of student events “Safe Spaces” has in reality only served to encourage recurring unsafeness, in the form of violence against visiting speakers.

In January 2016, the Safe Space policy was in place when a mob of anti-Israel students prevented former Israel Security Agency head Ami Ayalon from finishing his talk on the university’s main campus. After the protesters barricaded the room, screamed deafening chants, and set off fire alarms, attendees were forced to flee the event through underground tunnels. This March, an offshoot of Antifa stormed a debate organized by the Libertarian Society between Ayn Rand Institute president Yaron Brook and political YouTuber Carl Benjamin. A familiar scenario unfolded in which smoke bombs were set off, a security guard was seriously injured, and the entire event was ultimately shut down by the actions of masked vigilantes who were invited onto campus by students at the university. At both events, declaring a “Safe Space” failed to stop students from making it unsafe.

The college now faces a scourge unprecedented in the U.K.: rampant violence against visiting speakers on campus. The violence is perpetrated by a small but organized coalition of radical leftist students. Rather than punish those students, the administration has opted to extend free-speech restrictions to the student groups targeted by the unrest. In the aftermath of Antifa’s disruption, the college enacted punitive restrictions on all of the upcoming activities of the Libertarian Society. The college even cancelled a scheduled talk about free speech with Dr. Adam Perkins, one of its own professors.

The administration is being held hostage by intolerant leftist students who dictate which ideas should be restricted through the threat of violence. Speakers associated with the far left are therefore given a free pass when invited onto campus, while conservative, libertarian, and pro-Israel groups are frequently forced to alter their events in order to allay extensive complaints from the agitators. Restrictions forced upon student events by the administration include the imposition of an extra speaker to create debate, a limit on the number of attendees, and, of course, the authoritarian Safe Space policy. The message these restrictions send is that “controversial” ideas, rather than autonomous individuals, drive violence on campus.

Physical aggression should be a clear red line for any college administration. But King’s fears that countering the violence will arouse fury among those in the powerful student union. An investigation into recent violence found written proof that specific students involved in union politics were guilty of orchestrating Antifa’s presence on campus. Yet these students were somehow simultaneously exonerated in the investigation, as the report claimed there was no proof that they knew Antifa would perpetrate violence on campus. This is plainly false, considering Antifa’s well-known penchant for violence and intimidation. These students have not only managed to escape punishment, but now hold positions of authority in the student body. One student who was recorded chanting alongside Antifa has been permitted to continue with a paid role as a welfare-and-community officer with the student union this coming year.

King’s College London has made the mistaken assertion that students should feel emotionally safe at school. In fact, emotional unsafeness is integral to student life. Debating the topics protected under King’s Safe Space policy may lead to discomfort and even offense. Yet such discussions are also key to both intellectual inquiry and personal growth. The leftist students who want to shield themselves from these discussions are fundamentally at odds with the ideals of higher education. As the fourth-oldest university in the U.K., King’s was founded to further outstanding scientific progress. It is now considered a premier research-based university with influential alumni worldwide in the arts, sciences, military, and government. Rampant violence and Safe Spaces should have no place at such an institution.

Other universities in the U.K. face similar problems. Spiked magazine’s 2018 Free Speech University Rankings found that 54 percent of universities in the U.K. actively censor speech. Violence has also begun to spread, as a talk in February by British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg at the University of the West of England was aggressively disrupted by a group of thugs associated with Antifa. Without a culture or legal protections supportive of free speech in wider British society, external pressure won’t bring about change. Administrators must take the initiative themselves to stand up to student censors, mounting a vigorous defense of free speech and their own institutional integrity before it is too late.

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Tamara Berens — Tamara Berens is an undergraduate student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

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