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The dangers of de-platforming 

Comment Editor Samuel Pennifold on the dangers of de-platforming speakers we disagree with at universities. 

Student activism is an important part of university culture, we should question those in power, hold them to account and challenge the orthodox view. But a dangerous and growing trend across universities around the world is to attempt to de-platform speakers with whom we disagree with on issues where there is no subjective right or wrong, across the University of London, at LSE, and here at King’s, we have seen two such attempts by students in the last three weeks. 

Three weeks ago former CIA director General David Petraeus was due to speak at a duel online and in-person talk and Q&A session on the future of security and the challenges presented by climate change. Some students though felt that it was wrong General Petraeus had been invited to talk on our campus and joined a small but loud protest organised by the student campaign group No Borders KCL outside of the King’s Building. The protest was also supported by some who had been at an earlier protest outside Australia House concerning the imprisonment of Jullian Assange. 

At the protests, a representative of No Borders KCL started multiple chants such as “you’ve got blood on your hand” and invited others in attendance to talk as well, one suggesting that General Petraeus was a “war criminal”. An allegation that No Borders KCL had also made in their Instagram post sharing the location and time of the protest. When a group of approximately five students, at least one of whom is known to be a War Studies student here at King’s, walked past clearly in disagreement with the protest, the No Borders KCL representative present called the group “frustrated young men aspiring to be war criminals”. 

Newly elected student trustee Abdus Shaik, who attended the protest had this to say when I asked him if he was there in support of the protest; “Yes I was. It’s absolutely disgraceful how a war criminal was invited to an institution like Kings.”

Ultimately General Petraeus has never been formally charged with a war crime at any time from his Army career including his command of US and International Forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, and whilst it is alleged during his time as CIA director he was involved with the torture of alleged insurgents this again has never been proven. Ultimately Petraeus was involved in one of the most deeply dividing and unpopular conflicts of the 21st century but was doing so in the belief that he was protecting his country and the world. Whilst we now know the pretences to the Iraq War were false, Petraeus was not involved in this and as a commander did see some successes in establishing peace in Mosul where he rebuilt the University of Mosul. A testament to his belief in the need for education for peace and prosperity.  

This is not to say General Petraeus should be celebrated and should not be criticised but attempting to bar such speakers from campus by a minority of students, according to Roar News poll, is a dangerous precedent to set. His expertise remains valuable to the discussion of future security issues and the impacts of climate change on national security, and are worthy of being listened to. The logical end to such calls to bar speakers would be the effective closing of the KCL War Studies department which has both teachers and students with ties to both sides of the Iraq War, as well as many of the worlds militaries and intelligence agencies. This would not only be a loss to the university but to education and the diversity of thought. Honest, fair and open debate is as important to university culture as the right to protest is.

We must find room to accommodate both – de-platforming is a dangerous form of censorship.

None the less the No Borders KCL protest was a well organised and mostly respectful affair. Whilst I feel there is a dangerous precedent to say such speakers should be barred, I firmly support the right to peaceful protest. What cannot be supported is the kind of intimidation and threats of violence allegedly made against Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, whilst they were delivering a talk at LSE’s campus. Whilst the ambassador was speaking at an event as part of a series of lectures from multiple guests concerning the future of the Middle East a crowd gathered outside the location of where the talk was held to protest what they believe to be an Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Footage shared by the Jewish Chronicle showed protestors booing the ambassador as she was rushed away by her security teams as protests attempted to rush towards the ambassador. 

Of course, it cannot be known the intentions of any such protestors but such intimidation is a dangerous line to cross when protesting and is in no way a productive means of debate. What is scarier is that the non-LSE student union-affiliated group LSE Class War shared on their now-deleted Instagram page a story showing the following message during the event: “whoever smashed the Ambassadors car window (Lincoln’s Inn Field), gets pints. Let’s fuckin frighten her.” Such clear threats and glorification of violence against those with who we disagree is a dangerous virus on university campuses and must be stamped out immediately. 

The issue beyond the immediate nature of the threat is at what point do we draw the line? LSE Class War saught to bar private school students from attending LSE, so why not go around find anyone who went to private school and beat them up until everyone drops out and stops applying. What next after that? Do the same to anyone who does not vote for the political party you believe to be the right one? When violence and intimidation are used to challenge ideas rather than debate and words all of society grows poorer. 

We must not seek at King’s, at LSE, at the University of London and at Universities around the country to challenge speakers with whom we disagree with violence and intimidation, we must not blanket ban such speakers either. In a just and intellectually sound establishment and society, we must seek to challenge with opposing ideas and judgments.



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