On 5 March 2018, the King’s College Libertarian Society attempted to host an event featuring Israeli speaker Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute and controversial YouTube vlogger ‘Sargon of Akkad’ (Carl Benjamin). Both speakers were due to talk about freedom of expression as well as ‘objectivism’, the libertarian philosophy created by Russian-American author Ayn Rand.
A group of student societies decided to organise a counter-protest, including Demilitarise King’s, KCL Action Palestine, KCL LGBT+, KCL Kashmir Solidarity Movement, KCL Socialist Students, and KCL Intersectional Feminists. The protest group set up on Facebook called for the speakers to be no-platformed and described them as ‘white supremacists’, ‘neo-fascists’, ‘nazis’ and ‘alt-right’.
Off-campus groups, including black-clad activists from the hardline “left-wing, anti-fascist” street movement Antifa, were also present. Campus-based groups would later claim that Antifa’s activities were organised independently from their own. However, these student societies stood by their opposition to ‘war criminals’ and ‘members of the alt-right’ appearing on campus, referring to Brook and Benjamin respectively. Unlike the student societies, Antifa violently shut down the event and forced it to be cancelled.
Video footage confirms the presence of a number of masked Antifa activists, who stormed into the lecture hall whilst waving a red and black ‘anti-fascist’ banner. They stormed the stage, aggressively confronted the speakers and engaged in violent scuffles with security staff. These disturbing scenes are strikingly reminiscent of the violence that surrounded a visit to KCL by former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon in 2016.
The KCL Libertarian Society commented that: “The event has now been cancelled & evacuated after threats to the moderator. This was an act of violence, clearly intended to silence Yaron and Sargon’s planned debate, via a series of jackbooted totalitarian tactics that unfortunately proved successful tonight”.
The organisers of the event faced other institutional obstacles. Speaking exclusively to Student Rights, the moderator of the debate, Danny Al-Khafaji, revealed that the KCL students’ union “went back on its word”, forbidding around 200 non-students who had ordered online tickets from attending the event.
He remarked that the KCL authorities “did not provide adequate security” to deal with the scale of the protests and claimed that the protestors “intimidated the audience, hospitalised a security guard on the door, and set off the fire alarm with a smoke bomb to cause maximum disruption”. In addition, “windows were smashed” and “innocent bystanders waiting in the lobby were also verbally harassed and intimidated”.
Despite the audience and speakers wanting to proceed after the protestors were dispersed, Al-Khafaji told Student Rights that the KCL authorities evacuated the Strand campus and cancelled the event. He said: “We simply wanted to give a platform to the speakers to help students make up their own mind about them and for those who disagree to challenge their beliefs in the Q&A that would follow”.
Student Rights has also seen a shocking note that was given to Al-Khafaji by one of the protestors. Referring to a recent strike by academic staff, it reads: “The guy moderating the talk is on my course and he will have a difficult time once the strike is over”.
KCL have publicly stated that: “The Police attended and we are fully co-operating with their investigation. We absolutely condemn the use of violent protest in any situation”.
The appalling scenes at KCL last night are evidence of an encroaching culture of intolerance and hostility towards free speech on university campuses in Britain. Student Rights believes that whilst the two speakers undoubtedly have controversial views, they should be met by the force of argument, not the argument of force.
KCL have a lot of questions to answer about how these protestors were able to get passed security and compromise this event. The university authorities clearly failed, both in their duty to students and their role as an institute dedicated to education and understanding.