The principal of King’s College London has contacted all students warning that respect for “freedom of expression” will be upheld at the university ­– through curtailment of the right to protest.

The university’s new measures to ‘promote free speech’ implicitly reference a recent incident that occurred during a lecture by the chairman of the Ayn Rand society, Yaron Brook and far-right YouTube troll, Carl Benjamin (otherwise known as Sargon of Akkad) hosted by the KCL Libertarian Society. The meeting was disrupted by student protestors and members of Antifa, resulting in a small scuffle, which made the papers.

At the time, we criticised the ineffectual tactics of the demonstrators, who assembled a tiny group of activists rather than reaching out to wider layers of the student population and university workers – many of whom were mobilised for the UCU strike.

We warned that this approach would alienate the mass of students and workers, whose participation is necessary to genuinely fight the forces of reaction. Meanwhile, we warned that Antifa’s antics would only garner sympathy for the right wing, give credence to their accusations that the left is ‘intolerant to free speech’ and lead the university to crack down on protest in future. This is exactly what has come to pass.

The right to protest – silently

The announcement by KCL Principal Ed Byrne detailed the university’s planned response to “recent incidents” of “disrespectful behaviour and even unacceptable levels of violence”. While the disrupted Libertarian Society event provides a convenient excuse for a crackdown on ‘violent’ protest, it is no accident that this comes following a politically charged academic year that saw an historic pension strike by lecturers and on-going action by outsourced cleaners. The new measures represent a more general attack on students’ and workers’ right to organise and protest.

The university has produced a ‘Peaceful Protest Guidance Document’, which explains KCL is banning loud noises deemed to be a “nuisance”. As a result, loudspeakers and other such equipment (which played an important role during the UCU and cleaners’ disputes) are now “strictly prohibited” if “used to disrupt university life.” Byrne also mentions in his statement that “shouting or chanting” will be banned if it is intended to disrupt meetings. So, the only ‘acceptable’ form of protest is apparently standing meekly in silence – completely undermining the purpose of protesting at all.

A gift to racists and scabs

Byrne further writes:

“Intimidation, shouting or chanting that is intended to disrupt meetings so that speakers cannot be heard can be very traumatic for attendees and is unacceptable. Any student who directly or indirectly suppresses the freedom of expression of others is likely to be in breach of our misconduct guidance. Further, if there is evidence that a criminal offence may have been committed, we will ask the police to investigate.” [Emphasis ours]

This places the onus on students to ‘respect the feelings’ of avowed racists like Gábor Vona, for example: leader of the far-right, Hungarian Jobbik Party, who was recently invited to speak at King’s. If these rules are extended to organised labour struggle they will protect scabs and strike-breakers from opposition and could potentially leave students open to arrest for showing solidarity with university workers on picket lines.

KCLSU collaborates with management to quash dissent

Were the Peaceful Protest Guidance Document not Orwellian enough, KCL is also setting up a new ‘Freedom of Expression Advisory Committee’. Although the role of this sinister-sounding body has not yet been specified – beyond ‘advising’ on issues of free speech – we imagine that its role will be to clamp down on protest, inform on ‘unacceptable’ activity and help bring sanctions against students and staff found to be in violation of university policy.

Disgracefully, this committee will be “jointly staffed by the University and KCLSU [King’s College London Student Union]”. Therefore, on the one hand the union will continue to enforce “safe space” and “no platforming” policies, while on the other collaborating with management to undermine protest.

KCL is using ‘freedom of speech’ as a smokescreen to force through measures that will curtail freedom of protest for students and workers, while emboldening the right and making it much harder to voice dissent on campus. KCLSU, who are in an excellent position to fight for students’ democratic rights, should be opposing these measures, not helping to enforce them.

For freedom of expression on our terms

University management is opposed to student protest – especially when it takes the form of solidarity with university workers. Many institutions (including the University of London and Goldsmiths) employed heavy-handed tactics and criminal proceedings to quash student protest during the UCU strike, for example, with campus security and police photographed dragging students out of occupations in some cases. More drastically, at the university of Nanterre in France, management allowed far-right thugs to break up a student occupation in solidarity with striking rail workers. This is not to mention repressive measures like Prevent, which is used to spy on students’ political activities.

We can’t look to university management to defend our rights of free expression, protest, and assembly. Nor can we rely on tiny groups of masked Antifa activists to protect these rights. It’s through mass mobilisations of students and workers that these rights will be defended. Whether we’re joining striking staff on the picket lines, or opposing right-wing speakers at university events, we can rely on no-one but ourselves. Fighting to change society is the responsibility of us all – no one else will do it for us.

by Ollie Brotherton, KCL Marxists

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