The KCL Libertarian Society has launched a petition calling for a vote of no confidence against KCLSU President Ahad Mahmood for failing to condemn the statement ‘Opposing Hate at King’s College London.’
The statement was headed by the KCL Intersectional Feminist Society and called for the cancellation of a War Studies event featuring journalist Joanna Williams called ‘Endangered Speeches’.
While President Mahmood gave no official support to ‘Opposing Hate at King’s College London’, many have viewed his refusal to condemn the statement as a failure to uphold principles of freedom of speech on campus.
President Mahmood published a separate, similar statement on Facebook explaining that his principle concern was ‘the welfare of all students which includes our transgender and women students’ but did not call for the event to be non-platformed.
Shrouded in controversy, Dr Joanna Williams has made herself well known in the public eye for being a defender of freedom of speech and has strongly criticised the attitude of the student union for its refusal to condemn the actions of those demanding for controversial speakers to be non-platformed.
The statement opposed the event because of Dr Williams’ positions on the indoctrination of trans-rights to children in primary school education, for her opposition to the #MeToo movement, and criticism of feminism more broadly.
As part of a new speaker series organised by the head of the War Studies department Professor Mike Rainsborough, ‘Endangered Speeches’ were a set of talks created to emphasise the importance of freedom of speech in the wake of increased censorship on university campuses.
The ‘Petition to Depose the King’s College London Student Union President’ was organised by the KCL Libertarian society on the grounds that he ‘stood by a statement that called for the immediate cancellation of the event.’
The petition goes on to say that: ‘The President could have demonstrated remarkable leadership to condemn the malicious attempts to obstruct students from hearing different perspectives and defend the principles that allows intellectual development to flourish.
‘To the contrary, the KCLSU, in a statement published both in its newsletter and website, expressed concern and disappointment with the news that Dr Williams had been invited, later exemplifying their intentions to further abuse their power by developing ‘greater accountability for staff-led events’.’
The President of the Libertarian society who launched the petition Danny Al-Khafaji said: “the Student Union should be actively defending the life-blood of universities; free speech. It is because of free speech that was can have students can explore a variety of ideas, challenge them, and slowly construct their world view.
“For student groups to call for the cancellation of an external speaker is perfectly valid. After all, it is part of their free speech to voice their concerns. But for the Student Union to stand by the radical minority of students attempting to shut down Dr Williams, they are setting a dangerous precedent.
“The message it sends is one of capitulation and that somehow the foundational principle of free speech on campus can be put aside in the face of threats, and unfounded accusations of potential ‘harm’ being caused.”
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE ‘ENDANGERED SPEECHES EVENT’?
The ‘Endangered Speeches’ event which took place at 18:30 on 13th of November was organised by the KCL War Studies department with the aim to encourage a “civil and pluralistic debate between those with different viewpoints.”
Hosted by War Studies student Tamara Behrens and conducted by War Studies department head Michael Rainsborough, the event was not intended to “fan the flames of the culture wars, but to deconstruct the argument made in a free and open environment that allows for the expression of disagreement.”
Head of Education and Culture at Policy Exchange and well known for her work ‘Women Versus Feminism’, Dr Williams was determined to express her support for principles of freedom of speech and condemn those who were encouraging further censorship of voices.
She spoke openly about issues such as her scepticism about the mental health crisis, and the dangerous attitude of consumerism in universities that is costing young people their futures.
In response to a question asked about her position on transgender people, Dr Williams said: “I do actually think that there is someone as a woman. I think there is a connection between biology and sex.
‘Sex is not arbitrarily and randomly assigned as a person. I do understand on a philosophical level that gender is different from sex, I understand that the direction of closing down debate there is a greater conservatism around gender roles.
‘Let’s celebrate that you’re a boy who likes to wear a tutu, the idea that you have a girl that likes to play football. The idea that she was immediately born into the wrong sex is dangerous, hormone therapy is a trajectory that we shouldn’t go down lightly because we could be doing a lot of harm.
‘I find it hugely offensive when they refer to me dismissing entire populations. I have made references to particularly the youngest children in our society. There are application forms in Sussex where children are told that their gender is something they can choose for themselves.
PRESIDENT AHAD MAHMOOD VS DR JOANNA WILLIAMS
At the end of the event while the reception was being held, Dr Williams approached President Mahmood and questioned him on the statement that he had made in opposition to her.
In a fiery discussion that can only be described as a championing example of how free speech operates, Dr Williams criticised President Mahmood for accusing her of dismissing entire demographics of people which she refuted as lies.
The conversation took place in the middle of the public venue within earshot of many people, with Joanna Williams even playing to the those who were listening as she reprimanded President Mahmood for his actions.
Asking President Mahmood “Are you embarrassed? I would be so embarrassed if I were in your position,” Dr Williams made clear her outrage for his refusal to condemn the statement.
Despite her confronting attitude, President Mahmood made clear that he was “not at all” embarrassed. Below is a transcript of a large part of their conversation:
JW: You need to campaign for more free speech. But putting out veiled threats about monitoring events hardly suggests we really love free speech and we want more free speech for students, it very much suggests we want worse free speech.
AM: See that might be case and I appreciate that concern, and we are definitely working towards free speech and that’s something that’s part of a lot of initiatives we are taking especially with our own review of our own safe space policy that we are doing.
JW: So you’ll be looking to campaign against the safe space policy?
AM: We are reviewing it, and as…
JW: But you as a person as an individual, your individual view is against the safe space policy.
AM: My policy is to review it where it is relevant, and after that…
JW: But you must have opinions don’t you? You don’t have opinions?
AM: I do have opinions but I just don’t want to portray that at this moment in time…
JW: But you must have an opinion on safe space. Come on, everyone has an opinion. Do you think safe space is good or bad?
AM: It depends on what safe space is. I think it is really hard to define that as a general statement, what a safe space is, its’ really hard to do that. I definitely think our safe space policy does need to be reviewed, and that is something that we are doing, and I do think it might be outdated, it might not be.
JW: See the problem is really you don’t even need to have a safe space policy if you’re going to issue statements like the one that you did, that act as a trigger warning. This is a dangerous potentially harmful event that is taking place. This woman dismisses entire demographics. If you put out a statement using that kind of inflammatory rhetoric, you don’t need a safe space, you’re putting out a big red arrow saying ‘look everybody, dangerous event taking place’ you’re sending out that warning, not just to your own university, now because of social media, to the entire country.
AM: I think what you need to also recognise is that obviously you took issue with the statement is that that was obviously an opinion, and obviously that was from within the realms of free speech…
JW: But it comes with a King’s College London Student Union at the top of it so it’s not just an opinion, it’s an official badge.
AM: It was also originally again about that issue, and I’ll retrace this as much as many times as I need to, anything about no platforming was never the intention. And that might not seem clear to you, but that is something that I’d like to be clearer to discuss on.
JW: Can I just ask you then, how many people do you think in all honesty will read that statement and think this is a ringing endorsement of free speech.
AM: I don’t know.
JW: I would suggest very very few, and I think at heart you must know that that kind of statement is not a ringing endorsement of free speech. It’s about saying this is a bad view that has no place on our university, and it might not be saying we want no platforming, but in the context of the petition and in the context of the inflammatory debate of free speech on campus, putting big red arrows, big red rhetorical arrows saying ‘this is dangerous, this woman is dangerous, this is a bad event’ is not conducive to the support of free speech.
AM: I think one thing we would say is that multiple students have obviously approached us and stated that they felt unsafe, and that’s something that we say in the statement that this is something that students are feeling unsafe about, and that might be from something that might be present at the event.
JW: Do you know what I would do if I was head of the student union and people approached me like that, I would say ‘I’m really sorry that you feel unsafe. Go to the event and the best way is to confront your fears and go and see what might be said that is so terrible and dangerous, we promise your physical safety, we can absolutely 100% guarantee you will be physically safe by attending this event, go and test it out let’s see how emotionally dangerous this is, go and see and run that risk!
WHAT EXACTLY IS PRESIDENT MAHMOOD’S STANCE?
As demonstrated above, President Mahmood has said that it was never the intention of his statement to have Joanna Williams non-platformed despite how his statement may have come across.
In his statement published on Facebook, he expresses how he felt “deeply disappointed and concerned with the news that Joanna Williams has been invited to speak at KCL”, but there is never anything that says explicitly that he was willing to support action to non-platform the event.
He makes clear his support of the trans-gender community by stating that “there is a high risk of her advocacy for freedom of speech resulting, in attacks on transgender people (especially transgender women) and their right to exist.
“Freedom of speech is not without consequence and we are deeply disappointed that the department of War Studies has not taken into account the affect this would have on our student community.”
He then declares that university should be a place “where views are shared and debated freely”, but goes onto say that “there is a line between sharing a view and advocating for the dismissal of an entire demographic or undermining the violence experienced by another”.
“It seems that this talk only serves as a platform for a harmful speaker as opposed to truly addressing the issue of free speech on campus”.
While it is clear that President Mahmood does support freedom of speech in some format or another, it is his loyalty to his principle role of acting on behalf of the students who need institutional support that forces his hand.
President Mahmood has exclusively told Roar that: “From my perspective the petition is based on a misunderstanding of the facts. I did not call for Joanna to be no-platformed.
“I merely expressed concern and disappointment that she was invited, but it is ultimately the legal right of the War Studies department to invite (or disinvite) whoever it wishes. Saying that I am disappointed in their choice is not no-platforming.”
WILL THE PETITION PUT PRESSURE ON PRESIDENT MAHMOOD?
While no official referendum against President Mahmood has been called, the 200 signatures that the petition has received undoubtedly puts pressure on his position.
Under the Student Officer Accountability Procedure which can be found on the KCLSU website, a Motion of Censure can be raised if there is ‘a disapproval of an Officers delivery of an area of work’ or ‘concerns about an individual Officer arising through performance or identifiable failure.’
A Motion of No Confidence can only be submitted following a successful Motion of Censure against the elected officer if ‘no improvement or reasonable steps have been taken to rectify earlier performance issues.’
However this Motion of No Confidence is non-binding and completely under the discretion of the KCLSU Trustee Board.
So while students can have no direct say in any attempts of impeachment, they can place a great deal of pressure on the KCLSU Trustee Board to take action against the President if they can prove that he is not fulfilling his duties towards the Student Union through this procedure.
But since this petition launched has not gone down any official SU routes, the reality is it cannot do anything other than show discontent from the student body which may or may not be heeded by the SU board.
Libertarian Society President Danny Al-Khafaji has said: “the President has showed a lack of leadership to defend free speech even though he had a golden opportunity to do so.
“We intend to go through official Student Union procedures, including an official of no-confidence, and urge the president to publicly apologise.”
HOW DID PROTESTERS REACT?
While it was expected that many of the students and academics who had signed the statement opposing the event would appear in protest, there were none.
More than ten security guards were employed to protect the event, with most of them suspended around the door, yet it was a quiet night for them as the protesters had gone to express their opposition to what they considered a more worthy event.
That same night, the KCL Israel society hosted Israel’s current ambassador to the UK Mark Regev who has received prominence and criticism in international media for presenting the Israeli position in numerous interviews during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in 2008–09 Gaza War, the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defence, and the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict.
To say that it was unusual that no activists were around to protest an event wrought in such controversy for many days would be an understatement.
Interestingly many of the protesters for the event that took place that night came from both sides of the political argument. Ella Whelan, a well-known journalist who has been a major critic of feminism directly tweeted the KCL Intersectional Feminist society for their opposition to the event:
The idea that this event and the rhetoric around it has catalysed debate from prominent critics outside of the university is evidence in itself of the scale of the issues that are being covered here.
Yet while events like these and the vigorous debates they ignite act as the front line of the issue, a change in the university culture or the “Safe Space” policy itself continues to remain unlikely.