Do Safe Spaces Threaten Free Speech?

This week, in a welcome letter to its incoming freshman class written by Dean of Students John Ellison, the University of Chicago stipulated the following:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

These comments have sparked quite a commotion on the Internet, as folks on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum largely praised what they view as the university’s commitment to free speech. Are the praises being sung justified? Let’s examine what it is the University of Chicago stands in opposition to, point by point, and genuinely ask ourselves: Has “political correctness” threatened to free exchange of ideas on college campuses?

(Full disclosure: Independent of what I agree with or don’t agree with, I personally don’t feel that any of these statements should have been made in a letter meant to welcome students. They are part of a much larger discussion that needs to be had about protecting intellectual diversity and stimulation on campuses while also respecting students’ rights. To slip them in, within the context of other information — in a letter to which there can be no reply, no direct questioning — was not the smartest way to address these issues.)

Point #1: That universities should not support trigger warnings.

A trigger warning is either a verbal or written alert occurring before content that informs prospective audience members that the content to follow may “trigger” negative emotions in a specific way. Those who know they are particularly distressed by such stimuli can then make an informed decision as to whether or not to consume said content.

Trigger warnings do not, in any way, alter or censor the content itself.

If a professor decides to share an article with their class dealing with rape, that professor may choose, in good conscience, to tell the class in advance that the article describes an instance of rape so that rape victims in that class can choose not to read it. This doesn’t change the content of the article, nor does it prevent the professor from being allowed to share the article with their class.

So, what’s the problem, exactly? At what point do trigger warnings hinder free speech? How do they prevent anyone from saying anything?

The answer is simple: They don’t. At all. Writing a sentence at the top of a sheet of paper does not change what else is on that sheet. Making a disclaimer about a video before showing it to your class does not in any way infringe upon the content of that video. Trigger warnings are supplementary, not delivered “in place of” educational materials. In short, with regard to free speech, trigger warnings are a non-issue.

Point #2: That universities should not disinvite unpopular or controversial speakers.

This is the only point made in the letter with which I am inclined to agree. Rather than protest to prevent speakers from coming to one’s campus, I believe students should take full advantage of the presence of someone with whom they don’t agree to challenge them directly. Provided that there is a Q&A session after the talk, controversial speakers on campus give students a rare opportunity to directly confront and engage with persons they fear are harmful to themselves, the environment, and/or society at large. When students raise a fuss about a particular speaker before they have even arrived, demanding that they be uninvited, they sacrifice an opportunity to either expand upon their understanding of that person’s positions — which may result in finding areas of agreement — or, at the very least, making plain to others in attendance what specifically is harmful about the speaker’s ideology and/or actions. These opportunities should be seized, not demolished.

Point #3: That universities should not support the creation of safe spaces.

Contrary to how many choose to discuss or interpret the phrase, “safe spaces” are not created so that folks can “hide” from people whose views are different from their own. They are not intellectual vacuums — far from it. They are deemed SAFE because they are spaces in which marginalized persons, whose concerns and rights are not always reflected in mainstream dialogue, can come together and share their experiences without a representative of the mainstream barging in, interrupting and explaining all of their negative experiences away. They are not free of debate; just because a group is comprised exclusively of Black students, for instance, doesn’t mean that its members consistently agree on absolutely everything.

To suggest that a safe space for LGBTQ+ folk, for instance, denies the rights of free speech to those who oppose that community, would be to say that college campuses shouldn’t have Democrat clubs because that oppresses Republicans, nor should they have Conservative clubs because that’s not fair to the Liberals. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion would ultimately result in nearly all campus clubs and organizations being banned due to infringement upon the free speech of anyone who wouldn’t be allowed to join that group.

(This, of course, leaves aside the substantial emotional relief safe spaces provide for those in need, an element which is absent from more standardized interest groups that deal with topics more than experiences.)

One common critique of safe spaces and trigger warnings on campus alike is: “The world is not a safe space./Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings.” If one were to replace the words “safe spaces” with “support groups,” however, there could be no such objection to them whatsoever. Support groups do exist in the “real,” adult, post-college world, and are indeed “safe spaces.”

No one says of people who, say, attend a support group for families of people with drug abuse issues, “This violates the free speech of drug users.”

Why, then, is allowing students of a certain social, racial, gender, or sexual orientation group to get together to commiserate considered a threat to the free speech of students who aren’t part of that group?

In reading the comments on the afore-linked New York Times article, I came across several from marginalized persons who claim that in spite of their social category, they do not support safe spaces. They say they don’t need them: “My safe space is my home.” Since when does the fact that one doesn’t personally need something necessarily result in one’s objection to it?

Suppose you are an eighteen-year-old kid. You just started college out-of-state, without the benefit of friends and family from “back home” to see you through tough times, and you are of a group that is consistently oppressed and insulted in one way or another. You feel isolated and vulnerable, so you seek to create a safe space at your university for persons such as yourself. What harm could that possibly cause? How can anyone in good conscience object?

Neither trigger warnings nor safe spaces qualify as infringements on free speech. Neither prevent any given university from presenting and exploring a diversity of opinions.

Thus, I am left wondering: What are these objections really about?