It has been at least two years since King’s College London Student Union (KCLSU) began to employ Safe Space Marshals. Their role was created to implement the university’s eponymous Safe Space Policy at student events. Designed to control student emotion and speech on campus, the policy masquerades as an anti-harassment measure. It sets out that there are certain protected characteristics which students should not be able to criticise – the most problematic being the protection of the status of ideologies and cultures. Creating a barrier to the free exchange of ideas, students are unable to discuss, debate and discover their own ideas and identities. While no student should ever be harassed for their identity, the open-ended wording of the policy means it can be implemented to cover much broader behaviour than just harassment.
Jacob Rees Mogg, when speaking at the university’s Conservative Association last November, met the three Safe Space Marshals employed that evening to impose the policy with mirth. For a handsome twelve pounds an hour, the marshals place copies of KCLSU’s Safe Space Policy around the room and sit as chaperones in the event, monitoring speech. Rees-Mogg laughed at the idea that he might have anything to say which would infringe upon student safety. However, beneath this was something more sinister; the idea that students and an elected politician required employed ‘marshals’ to oversee their event is paternalistic at best and at worst, totalitarian.
There is no way to ensure that complaints made of breaches against the Safe Space policy are dealt with impartially.
As President of the Israel Society at King’s, I have witnessed how the policy can easily be used selectively due to student 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 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. Those in charge of implementing the policy are individuals and often students, who naturally have their own political bias and opinions. There is no way to ensure that complaints made of breaches against the Safe Space policy are dealt with impartially.
In order to test this, as part of Israel Society I made a complaint about an event in 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 and I 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 rather than making me feel ‘discriminated against’ was actually threatening to the physical safety of Israeli students. I was told that nothing could be done to act on this as the Student Union could not be ‘political’.
Universities used to be the primary institution for promoting change in society. Safe Spaces threaten this by encouraging the infantilisation of students over academic progress. They presume a false sense of security without securing the physical safety of students, create an atmosphere hostile to debate and drain student resources. We must put a stop to safe spaces before they infringe further into our academic lives.