[CW: intimidation, safe space violation, mental health issues]
A safe space is, by definition, a place where people can fully express themselves without fear of intimidation or being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe by others. More specifically, EUSA’s safe space policy clearly states that ‘members are expected to respect the right of all students attending Student Council (and related meetings) and staff to enjoy EUSA as a safe space environment.’
The safe space policy has been designed to uphold the principle that no university space should be inaccessible, to anyone, for any reason. That’s why it includes section 6.c of the policy, where it indicates that all members of the room should be ‘refraining from hand gestures which denote disagreement or in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made.’
To summarise what actually happened, contrary to national news stories and the VPAA’s account, the complaint was made on paper by a student who wishes to remain anonymous. This paper was then given to one of the liberation group conveners to pass onto EUSA staff so that their anonymity would be protected. The complaint was based on the behaviour of EUSA VPAA during discussions of a motion that asked the Principal to resign. When one student was commenting on the motion, they were interrupted by the VPAA raising her arms, shoulders, and hands in the air in disagreement that was interpreted as ridiculing the student who was commenting at the time. The student that was commenting then had to change what they were saying to respond to the VPAA’s behaviour.
The disabled student who made the complaint now regrets making the complaint out of fear of their identity being revealed and subsequent personal attacks. EUSA VPAA and some others have said the complaint was unfounded, even though the VPAA’s actions blatantly served to intimidate, influence, and interrupt the proceedings at student council. If an elected representative who is sitting on a stage in front of 250 people makes a face and throws their hands in the air to disagree with something, it serves to intimidate, influence votes, and deter other students from participating in future student council meetings.
Hand gestures are intimidating to many; the VPAA did not simply ‘raise her hand’ or try and ask a question as many news outlets have claimed. They were certainly intimidating to a student at Council on Thursday after the VPAA’s actions and her subsequent denial of any wrongdoing. Her behaviour was a blatant violation of safe space. Most people would now agree that Student Council should take place in a room that’s accessible via a lift. This is what an event being accessible for people with limited mobility means. Similarly, Student Council should be accessible for people with PTSD and anxiety disorders. For these people, the environment around them can change from safe to unsafe more easily than someone without these issues. That’s why the safe space policy includes hand gestures, and it seems like this is what the VPAA, in their descriptions of it being “a little extreme,” is not understanding.
At the beginning of the meeting the VPS made a big effort to highlight the existence and importance of this policy; encouraging everyone to read it, and providing complaint slips along with an anonymous phone line (which aren’t usually available at Council). Yet when a student exercised their right to safe space they faced ridicule, silencing, invalidation, and now the accusation that their complaint ‘was a political move against [the VPAA]’ in a forum they could not respond to without outing themselves. This is a major deterrent to others from using safe space policy, and so a major roadblock to many students wanting to access EUSA spaces.
Safe spaces are often exalted as a violation of free speech. This myth is exemplified in such outcry at a safe space complaint being made. Free speech exists as a concept to hold the powerful and privileged to account and yet it is being co-opted by mainly privileged people who cry their free speech is being violated. It is dismaying that this side of the story is the one that is making headline news. Having your opinion given a platform and being broadcasted like this is a sure sign your free speech is absolutely not being violated.
Let us be clear: if someone’s safety in a space is threatened, this person becomes the top priority. We have a duty to ensure that everyone is able to access student council and one person’s insolent anger at being called out for being threatening is no excuse to continue to derail the complainant’s security. An able bodied/minded person may feel that parts of the policy are ‘ludicrous’ but this is a privileged position, and by no means defensible. It is entirely inappropriate and insulting for the sabbatical officers to be so-called defenders of safe space but ridiculers of it at the same time. If you don’t support safe space policy, don’t pretend you do, and don’t belittle and ridicule people when you break it and you get called out on it.
It is also worth adding, here, that sabbatical officers have a lot more power and influence than regular students (even if just in virtue of sitting at the front of Council meetings on a large stage) therefore it is very likely that the VPAA’s hand gestures could sway the general audience member’s vote, and have a greater effect on a student’s wellbeing. Instead of laughing it off that ‘raising her hand’ made national news headlines, the VPAA should apologise for her behaviour. By behaving as the victim of student politics out of control, the VPAA is making the safe space policy a joke and is discouraging students from participating in student council and speaking up when their safe space is violated.
Furthermore, the safe space violation had nothing to do with the BDS motion, as the VPAA has claimed. It was lodged in regard to the VPAA’s actions during the debate on a motion calling for the resignation of the principal before the speeches on BDS even occurred. We all have a responsibility to safe space regardless of whether the motions being discussed are contradictory to our political beliefs. For her to use her position to derail safe space in order to make a political point is reckless – to then cry wolf and claim safe space was used politically against her is inexcusable. It also gives credence and platforms to damaging anti-safe space campaigns, as international news outlets are using her account of what happened to her to delegitimize safe space policy as a whole.
EUSA is already failing its liberation groups, and is now irresponsibly attacking something that is at the very core of liberation politics.
We sympathise with the VPAA for the abuse she is receiving on twitter and other platforms, as it is undeniably atrocious and abuse of this kind is unacceptable. The fact still remains that in her upset, the VPAA has resorted to ridiculing the safe space policy and as someone with a duty to uphold the policy, this is unacceptable. We suggest the sabbatical officer re-reads the safe space policy and realise that denying violating it is going to be incredibly harmful for the efficacy of the safe space policy in the future and apologising for their behaviour. Alternatively, if they don’t agree with safe space policy, don’t say you will defend it ‘to the ground’ while actively ridiculing the policy by claiming to know what caused the complaint when you obviously do not.
Jess Killeen, EUSA Disability and Mental Wellbeing Liberation Group Convener
Shuwanna Aaron, EUSA Black and Minority Ethnic Liberation Group Convener
Maia Almeida-Amir, EUSA Women’s Liberation Group Convener
Rachel Ram, EUSA LGBT+ Liberation Group Convener
Montana Kimmel, EUSA International Student Group Convener