Palestine solidarity tests the limits of UK campus freedom

After BLM, Palestine solidarity is the litmus test for UK campus freedom of expression
4 min read
29 Nov, 2021
With a repressive political backdrop in the UK against pro-Palestinian voices, it is more important than ever that the student movement continues to speak up for peace, justice, and liberation, writes Larissa Kennedy.
Protesters outside King's College during on a tour of London Universities to demand a boycott for all Israeli academic and cultural institutions to end Israel's occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid on 9 July, 2021. [Getty]

Peace. Justice. Liberation. For decades, this is the vision for the world that students have fought for. From picket lines to protests, you’ll often hear students shouting, "This is what democracy looks like!" 

Indeed, the right to protest is fundamental to any democracy and the student movement has a long history of proudly exercising those democratic rights. Up and down the country, students have protested various speakers' invitations to their campuses and communities; a reminder that freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from accountability. 

"By vilifying student protestors and mischaracterizing the LSE protest, MPs and ministers are both vilifying the very right to protest and specifically deterring solidarity with Palestinian liberation"

This month's protest at LSE against the Israeli Government's ambassador Tzipi Hotovely is one such example. Students peacefully demonstrated against the former Israeli minister of settlement affairs, holding her accountable for her active role in the expansion of racially segregated settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  

For years Ministers have told us that they care deeply about freedom of speech and expression. Even though just six out of 10,000 events with external speakers were cancelled at university students' unions in the previous academic year, the Government wants to spend state resources fabricating and "dealing with" a so-called crisis. They even want to allow guest speakers to sue Students' Unions and Universities if they're prevented from speaking – including if those speakers were inciting hatred. 

It may seem puzzling that politicians who speak so often of free speech are now clamping down on any form of student dissent, threatening police involvement and expulsion from university. To add insult to injury, doing so in defense of someone who actively silences and invisibilises the rights and freedoms of Palestinians.

In fact, this just pulls back the curtain on exactly what free speech means to them: unlicensed freedom to spread harmful ideals that infringe on others' freedoms. By vilifying student protestors and mischaracterizing the LSE protest, MPs and ministers are both vilifying the very right to protest and specifically deterring solidarity with Palestinian liberation.  

On both accounts, the silence from LSE is deafening. When a handful of students are being met with sensationalist rhetoric from the media, politicians and others with major platforms, the university's failure to set the record straight and stand up for students' right to protest and exercise their freedom of speech could be considered embarrassing at best, and negligent at worst. It is yet another example of how the institutional co-option and repackaging of decolonisation often reduces this struggle to a metaphor.

Protesting a regime that has been described as an apartheid state by both Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem is decolonial practice in motion. It is well recorded that the Israeli State has directly contributed to land theft, settler colonialism, environmental destruction, and the violent displacement of Palestinian families . Tzipi Hotovely is a self-described "religious right-winger", and has claimed Palestinians are "thieves of history" with no heritage. Whilst she was given a platform to express her views freely, students were demonised for holding her to account. 

Voices

Students have the right to shape their communities of learning. Attempts to quash this and turn our institutions into extensions of the state are frightening, but unsurprising given this government's consistent attempts to silence the voices of those who do not subscribe to their narrow worldview.

The ever-increasing securitisation on university campuses, doubling down on the Prevent strategy that routinely censors pro-Palestinian voices, and the disproportionate response to a student protest are threads of the same tapestry. 

We must also connect these threads to the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and the Government seeking to extend their powers through criminalising the act of expressing a desire for political change. Lawyers advise that the anti-protest curbs therein will violate international human rights standards, which gives clues to the society they’re hoping to build with their 80-seat majority.  

"With this political backdrop, it is more important than ever that the student movement continues to speak up for peace, justice, and liberation"

With this political backdrop, it is more important than ever that the student movement continues to speak up for peace, justice, and liberation. Standing shoulder to shoulder with those resisting occupation and colonisation, with those fighting for climate justice, with those fighting for liberation for all marginalized people.

It is our duty to hold those who seek to spout hatred to account; to remind ourselves and our communities that another world is possible. 

Larissa Kennedy is the President of the National Union of Students (NUS) which represents seven million students across further and higher education in the UK.

Follow her on Twitter: @Larissa_Ken

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.