We must uphold the right to dissent

Photo credit: Dulcie Lee

By Sebastiaan Debrouwere, KCLSU President

The other day I was at a debate where one of the speakers paraphrased a famous saying in Dante’s Inferno: “Those who do not abide by their principles will burn in the Seventh Circle of Hell.”

In all fairness, I grew up as an inquisitive – or, more appropriately, rebellious – child in a Catholic boarding school, and have been threatened with going to hell before. But still, now more than ever, this Dante’s stark warning resonates with me.

The scenes that took place last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in Bloomsbury were appalling. We’ve seen footage of protesting students being kicked and punched. Tens of students were arrested, on a flimsy basis and often with draconian bail conditions. The scenes were reminiscent of those we usually see in televised reports of regimes cracking down on dissent and were, in my view, deplorable. While I don’t condone any violence directed at the police present, I most strongly condemn the police brutality we witnessed. On a university campus, this response is simply unacceptable.

For as long as we can remember, universities have been at the heart of debate and discussion. Our campuses have been bulwarks of free speech, of dissent, of opposition and of constructively seeking for new solutions to societal problems. Plurality is, and should be, embedded in the DNA of any educational institution.

Sometimes the dissent of students can be very uncontroversial. At KCLSU we’ve opposed the Immigration Bill, which will have a deleterious effect on the welfare of our international students, by meeting with our representatives. At other times, students will demonstrate. Just as freedom of speech is a right, freedom to peacefully dissent is a democratic right.

As a representative elected in a democratic system, I cannot remain silent when one of the most fundamental rights is eroded. I cannot idly stand by when a university takes out an injunction against protesting by its own students, meaning that from now on any protesters can be criminally prosecuted for being ‘in contempt of court’.

Whether students agree or disagree with a university, it is paramount that they should have a right to express their views. We should always be able to hold our universities to account. Put simply, students from across the political spectrum must unite on this issue. We demand that the integrity of our civil rights is upheld unconditionally.

In the next few weeks, I shall be seeking assurances from King’s that it will not crack down on peaceful protest activity by our students. Equally, I want to join the NUS in its call for an inquiry into the handling of last week’s protests. The principles of plurality are sacrosanct to me, and I will not burn in hell for not acting upon them.

 

I want to make it absolutely clear that I am writing this comment piece in a personal capacity. None of the opinions reflected should be taken as those of KCLSU, its Student Council or Trustee board.

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