An Edinburgh university student has told how she was accused of violating Safe Space policy and almost ejected from a meeting – because she raised her arms and shook her head. The incident highlights the increasingly hair-trigger sensibilities of students at some of the country’s most prestigious academic institutions, yet incredibly the student in question still supports the policy.
Imogen Wilson, Vice President for academic affairs at Edinburgh’s student association, fell foul of its safe space policy at a meeting last Thursday, after being accused of not responding to a letter from disabled students.
“At that point, I raised my arms in disagreement, as we had contacted the writers of the letter and tried hard to organise a meeting,” she told Huffington Post UK. “It was for that reason that a safe space complaint was made.”
Section 6c of the policy specifically instructs council members to be respectful and considerate, defined as “Refraining from hand gestures which denote disagreement or in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made. Disagreements should only be evident through the normal course of debate.”
The rules state that when a safe space complaint is made, students vote on whether to remove someone from the room. Wilson was allowed to stay by a majority of 33 to 18.
She was later again threatened with another complaint after shaking her head as someone spoke. Despite this, she says she believes the policy should remain in place, saying: “I completely understand the importance of our safe space policy, and will defend it to the ground.
However, she added: “but I did not think [in this instance] that was fair, and had it gone further I would have either left or argued against it.”
She later tweeted that she accepted that the fact of her being on stage could have rendered her gestures “intimidating”.
@CDP1882 I accept that my position in the room, on stage, and as a sabb, meant that my gestures could have been considered intimidating.
— Imo Wilson EUSA VPAA (@eusavpaa) April 1, 2016
@CDP1882 respectfully please go away
— Imo Wilson EUSA VPAA (@eusavpaa) April 1, 2016
Let’s be perfectly clear, you’re trying to defend a policy which almost had you removed for raising your hands during a debate. @eusavpaa
— Charlie Peters (@CDP1882) April 1, 2016
A fourth-year student who was present at the meeting but wished to remain anonymous, said they thought the application of the safe space in this instance was “ludicrous,” but again sought to defend it, despite acknowledging that it was open to political misuse.
“The whole thing was a ludicrous abuse of the entire intent of safe space,” they said.
“We were having one of the most emotionally tense councils of the year, with the vote on the BDS movement and people speaking who live in Palestine or are Israeli on both sides of the issue. There was ample risk of there being an actual safe space issue taking place – an anti-semitic or islamophobic comment for instance – but the whole debate was actually remarkably civil despite how emotional it was.
“So for someone to have abused the very legitimate purpose of safe space rules to get at someone they politically disagreed with was pretty low. And for 18 other students who definitely could not have all seen the motion themselves to vote for that sabbatical officer’s removal from the room, clearly just out of political disagreement, was also crazy,” they said.
But first year student Charlie Peters is happy to criticise the policy openly. He’s launched a petition to end the safe space policy and reinstate free speech. In an open letter addressed to the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, which accompanies the petition, he wrote:
“In a free and liberal society such as ours, it is imperative that people remain able to express their views, regardless of what others may think of them. This is currently not possible at the University of Edinburgh.
“By upholding the values of the NUS’s [National Union of Students] ‘No Platform’ policy – and as a result of your ‘Safe Space’ policy – you have restricted the right of students and guests to speak freely. By defining university as a ‘Safe Space’, you shelter students from dissenting views, betraying the most basic ideals of education.”
— Charlie Peters (@CDP1882) March 31, 2016
He has accused the NUS and EUSA of “mocking” people who “bravely fight” against censorious regimes abroad.
“Censorship of the press and strict prison sentences for expressing an opinion on religion, government, and even on culture are commonplace in countries like Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Cuba,” he said. “People throughout the world are paying with their lives for demanding the hard won freedoms we are so blessed to enjoy in the United Kingdom.
“You are shedding the most basic and precious of our liberties and you are doing so without apt consideration. How ashamed Adam Smith, the great Scottish champion of free speech, would be if he were to see Edinburgh today. Edinburgh, once the home of liberty, free speech and reason is now home to an intolerant and ban-happy Students’ Association.”