Debate Over Safe Spaces on College Campuses

In media coverage of recent events, especially those on college campuses related to protests concerning the LGBTQ community and their ability to express themselves in a healthy environment, as well as protests concerning minority students and their perceived safety from violent threats of racism, the controversial argument of restricting speech has been presented. In particular, recent events on the campuses of Yale University and the University of Missouri, where there have been extensive protests against perceived racial insensitivity on campus have brought such controversy to light. There have also been claims of systematic racism and bias on these campuses. The resulting wave of protesting and activism has resulted in considerable changes in power, most notably, the stepping down of both Chancellor R. Brown Loftin and President Tim Wolfe at the University of Missouri after a hunger strike and the refusal of the football team to play as long as the school did not address the alleged claims of racism. These events have prompted conversations about individual freedoms and liberties. In particular, people are asking if the curbing of the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and all of its aspects is sanctioned by the necessity to protect people from all things they perceive as offensive? Does the right to not be offended trump the rights of others to be offensive? More importantly, should university spaces be safe havens where college students can avoid everything that they may find offensive?

I am conflicted about this issue. After all, The United States of America holds the fundamental right to free speech in the highest regard. It’s the very first amendment of the United States constitution and arguably the most important one. It is our most cherished liberty and a priority for other successful governments. If the people of a nation do not have the freedom of expression, then on what foundation can they receive other freedoms? What would be the value of those freedoms anyhow, without the freedom of expression?

I am also prompted to ask if freedom of expression is a right solely devoted to those who are oppressed. Is it possible to advocate freedom of expression for only benevolent members of society without being a hypocrite? Again, I am conflicted.

On one hand, I understand the perceived need for safe spaces in society. My identity includes many different minority categories, and I have been offended by many things that I have seen or heard and it would be nice to have a place where I don’t have to worry about such things. However, I have also used my privilege as a wielder of free speech to combat ignorance and prejudice. Doesn’t advocating for safe spaces, especially in universities, lead to a very slippery slope, in which more and more rights become stripped away from individuals in order to cater to the sensitivities of others? Is it possible this way of thinking stretches so far that it protects my expression of identity as well as the expression of someone who is advocating the persecution of someone different than them, based on their sex, gender, race, or religion?

Let’s gain some perspective on the matter. The American Civil Liberties Union provides an extensive discussion that directly provokes thoughts about free speech on campus. On their website, a page entitled “Hate Speech on Campus,” puts this critical controversy onto an actual platform and actually provides their position on these issues with viable solutions to the problem. To my surprise, the American Civil Liberties Union is highly critical of the tactics that many campus organizations have employed that have directly limited free speech that offends any group based on race, gender, sexual identity, religion, or any other characteristic.

The basis of this criticism stems from the indivisible right of freedom of speech which means that if the government begins to persecute people on the basis that their speech is offensive, it jeopardizes everyone’s ability to speak their mind, which goes completely against the right to free speech. While the most direct challenge to free speech is hate speech and that which challenges our own ideals, we cannot employ quick fixes such as enacting restrictive policies that limit free speech - even if it is hate speech. Another argument is that speech codes only silence hate speech, instead of effectively combating and eradicating it. In the words of the ACLU, “it is unrealistic to think that punishing speech is going to rid campuses of the attitudes that gave rise to the speech in the first place.” Do not misunderstand; the ACLU does not condone acts of violence or harassment. It actually advises that these acts be punished saying, “ the mere presence of speech as one element in an act of violence, harassment, intimidation and privacy invasion doesn’t immunize that act from punishment.”

It is wise to keep in mind the role of universities in maintaining an educated society. As the ACLU states, “Academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.” It provides students with exposure to new ideas. With that thought in mind, it would be best to acknowledge that the most effective way to combat hate speech on college campuses, and in society as a whole, would be to utilize speech itself with the goal of educating others and promoting ideals that benefit society as a whole. On that thought, I leave you with a statement by ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, “There is no clash between the constitutional right of free speech and equality. Both are crucial to society. Universities ought to stop restricting speech and start teaching.”

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