Not even twenty minutes had passed into the discussion between guest speakers Carl Benjamin and Yaron Brook at King’s College London before free speech was suppressed. Swarms of violent protestors stormed the lecture theatre, with masks and bandanas, hurling verbal abuse and inciting physical attacks. We were faced with a chilling demonstration of contemporary fascism. I was chairing the discussion, at King's College London, ironically devoted to free speech and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. The speakers had different angles, and the audience were invited to make up their own mind. Although for some, rational debate was not the aim.
A large bang announced their arrival. Around thirty came through the back doors, going straight for the speakers and myself on stage. It was clear their objective was maximum disruption. They let off a smoke bomb to set off the fire alarm, intimidated the audience, smashed windows, and hospitalised a security guard on the door. There is only one way to respond to such an outrage: to carry on with the discussion, demonstrating that the mob cannot prevail on campus. Instead, the university played into their hands and cancelled our event.
What is fuelling this, you may ask? We are now one of many universities to have a safe space policy, enforced by ‘safe space marshals’. These marshals operate on a ‘three strikes’ policy whereby a violation of the safe space policy can result in the shutting down of the event. They are tasked to ensure the ‘intention to incite hatred is never acceptable.” But who decides the standard by which to distinguish what speech violates the safe space policy? More importantly, why do we need a safe space if we already have hate speech laws in the UK? With a wait of 15 working days of vetting required before external speakers are even approved to speak on campus, is there any actual use for safe spaces at all?
Such policies only embolden those who want to stifle free speech, giving them legitimacy to intervene in what has been characterised as an ‘unsafe’ environment. This new form of authoritarianism is on the rise in universities across the UK, and you can bet it won’t be confined to campus. This is not a right or left-wing issue, but something we can all get behind. Action must be taken to restore university campuses to places of intellectual development, rational debate and a hotbed for the challenging of ideas. Our student-led campaign to abolish safe spaces is the first step in this direction.
Danny Al-khafaji is a student at King’s College London