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Universities have a duty to uphold freedom of speech

Universities around the world play a vital role in society as safe environments where open and uncensored debate can and must take place without fear of intimidation, not least as a way of encouraging students to learn to think for themselves and form their own opinions. King’s is no exception to this but has been one of the U.K. universities in the spotlight in recent months following the distressing reports of violent protests during a talk given by Ami Ayalon on our campus in January, organized by KCL Israel Society and LSE Israel Society.  

The entrance gate of King's College in London

A recent media article in the U.K.’s Times newspaper suggested that Jewish students may be put off from applying to some of the top universities in the U.K. following a perceived increase in anti-Semitism on campus. This is very worrying if it is true, and we must do everything we can to reassure potential students and their families that they are welcome at our universities.

I want to reaffirm here that King’s is proud of its excellent links to the Jewish community and its developing program of Israel studies. We are opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and to any form of disruptive action that might interfere with the university’s core purpose to promote scholarship and learning. We recognise that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths and we are absolutely committed to respect for all of our staff and students, and to peaceful and respectful dialogue where people have conflicting views.

There was no excuse for the behavior of a vocal minority of protesters at the event in January. Since then we have conducted a thorough investigation and have established an accurate record of what happened at the event. We are taking appropriate action in accordance with our misconduct regulations and have shared the content of our investigation with the other London universities, which appear to have been involved in some capacity. We have also examined the arrangements which were put in place to organize and manage the event and have recommended improvements to our policies and those of our Students’ Union. All our recommendations are now being taken forward. We are pleased that Ami Ayalon has accepted our invitation to return to King’s in the near future.

Intimidating behavior is completely unacceptable and goes against everything that we stand for at King’s. We do not, and will not, condone the use of any form of violent protest. The safety of our students, staff and the general public is paramount to us and we are committed to acting as a responsible organization. We have a duty to uphold freedom of speech within the law and will fight against intolerance wherever it is found. I took early steps in January to remind all of our students to be respectful of their peers’ rights to hold different opinions from their own, and to debate these in a peaceful and constructive way through the many channels which exist at King’s and outside the university.

To emphasize this point, we are considering following in the footsteps of the University of Chicago, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and others, in adopting the “Chicago Statement” at King’s. This is an articulation of a university’s public commitment to “free, robust and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” Developed in 2014 by the University of Chicago in light of “recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse,” the Statement can be equally applied to most, if not all, universities.

I strongly believe that this is the way we will protect freedom of speech at our university and ensure that all our students, whatever their background, can undertake their studies and enjoy a wide variety of extracurricular activities safely, without fear of intimidation or violent behavior.

Edward Byrne