The Case for Safe Spaces

This month, entering freshman at the University of Chicago received a letter from the Dean of Students, John Ellison. The letter was a ringing affirmation of Chicago’s commitment to academic freedom and free expression. Indeed, “ringing” might be too weak a word—“chest-thumping” comes closer to capturing the tone of this particular missive. The key paragraph from the letter reads as follows: “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.”

The Dean’s letter caused controversy on and off campus. More than 150 faculty members signed a letter challenging the letter's premises. Importantly, faculty signatories to this letter included some who had previously signed a well received 2015 Statement on Freedom of Expression. Others leaped to their metaphorical feet to applaud. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial page was especially emphatic: “In a free society, especially in a place of learning, all ideas should be permitted to be heard. They will rise and fall on their merits.”

The problem is that the paragraph from the Dean’s letter quoted above contains three propositions one of which is questionable, one of which is clearly correct, and one of which is demonstrably and crucially wrong. Let’s break this down. The three propositions are:

1. “We do not support" trigger warnings;

2. No disinviting speakers;

3. No safe spaces.

Start with the statement “we do not support… trigger warnings”. This one is questionable; at best it is so vague as to invite misinterpretation. It is not entirely clear, after all, what “do not support” means. U of Chicago does not presently require or prohibit trigger warnings in any situation. But this was in a letter to incoming students who are presumably not already familiar with the culture and policies of the University. So the statement an institutional declaration to students that if their professors choose to provide trigger warnings they are acting contrary to the will of the institution. Why should the university take this position? There is nothing in any theory of free speech or academic freedom that would preclude providing warnings to an audience that the contents of what is to follow may be troubling, offensive, or harmful to sensitive audiences. That’s exactly why we have ratings systems for movies, for example.

There could be an issue of academic freedom involved if such warnings were required of all instructors. Perhaps an instructor might feel that the shock of an unexpected encounter in a text with troubling material is part of the pedagogical effect she is trying to achieve. That’s debatable; there are all sorts of things we are professionally enjoined from engaging in even in the service of pedagogy. (Instructors should not call students “morons”, for example.) So there could be arguments both ways: that shock and trauma are sometimes elements of educational catharsis, or that deliberately exposing a class to shocking material without warning as a teaching strategy violates professional norms.

The Dean’s letter, however, seeks to shut that debate down ahead of time. While (again) I’m not quite sure what “we do not support” means, if I were an untenured instructor I’m pretty sure I’d take that as—wait for it—a warning. As a student I would certainly take the message as an invitation to cause trouble to any instructor foolish enough to provide trigger warnings in defiance of the considered judgment of the Dean of Students. Given that trigger warnings are themselves and example of academic speech, this looks like nothing less than an attempt to chill the speech of instructors. Political correctness is no more acceptable if it prevents trigger warnings than it would be if it required them at all times.

The second proposition is about not disinviting speakers because of their ideas. That one is clearly correct. It is absolutely true that being exposed to potentially shocking ideas in an appropriate setting is a critical element of higher education. More than that, in the U.S. universities--specifically including the University of Chicago--have a long and proud tradition of serving as locations in which voices deemed too unsettling for mass exposure can nonetheless be heard: communist voices, socialist voices, atheist voices, and of course conservative or fascist voices. Equally obviously, there is no rule that universities must decide that the mere fact of being outrageous is sufficient grounds for an invitation, but the letter clearly refers to “disinviting”. In this the Dean is on safe and secure ground.

And that brings us to the issue safe spaces. The Dean proposes that the free expression that is of the essence of the university experience requires that there be no “spaces…where one can retreat.” This is startlingly wrongheaded.

Freedom of expression requires that I tolerate the expression of all ideas—traditional or radical, shocking or offensive—in public discourse. But there is no theory of free expression or the First Amendment of which I am aware that has ever suggested that I am required to tolerate such expression in my living room. Or my bedroom. Or behind the locked door of my bathroom. In First Amendment law this is known as “forum” doctrine: the rules for a public square are different from the rules inside a private residence. From a First Amendment perspective the students at Yale’s Silliman Hall who insisted that a student residence is different from a classroom were exactly right. Public spaces are noisy, and you just have to deal with that: if you don’t like what you see, “avert your eyes.” But this is specifically a theory about public spaces and government suppression, not about the right of private individuals to secure the “peaceable enjoyment” of their own homes. A key aspect of the idea of “privacy” is that there exists a place to escape from the noise.

It’s not just residences that are supposed to be “safe”. The idea that freedom of expression does not extend to private spaces is why protestors are not allowed to invade corporate boardrooms, Macy’s never had to allow Gimbel’s to set up advertisements in their lobby, and the Klan is not entitled to interrupt the local synagogues prayer services. This is as basic as it gets: discourse in private spaces discourse is not public. The creation of private “safe” spaces does not infringe on public discourse, it merely provides a place to retreat. Even in public spaces expression can be limited in ways that are essential to the purpose of an institution. In either situation the role of the government is to protect private individuals against other private individuals. It’s pretty much what we mean by words like “law” and “private” and “property”.

In short, there is no theory of free expression of which I am aware that suggests that there should be no way to escape unwelcome messages in private. Yet that is precisely the proposition the Dean’s letter calls into question with his assertion that there should be no place “where one can retreat.” No place?

Separate from the issue of free expression, however, is the fact that this discussion is taking place in the specific context of a university. That means that academic freedom is also an issue. And here’s where the whole discussion breaks down. As an institution, a university is little more than one big Safe Space. Tenure exists to create safe spaces for research and teaching without interruption. Departments of History and Philosophy and Classics are safe spaces in which scholars do not have to deal with challenges to the value of History and Philosophy and Classics—if students don’t want to study those things they can go to someone else’s living room—and a seminar on Plato is a space where it is space to care about ancient Greek philosophy without being mocked by individuals who find such pursuits a waste of time. Lecture halls, libraries, laboratories, the Dean’s office, all of these are carefully delineated and protected Safe Spaces that protect university faculty and staff against the intrusion of unwelcome expression or disruption.

Or consider student organizations and theme dorms. Hillel is a Safe Space to be Jewish, the Federalist Society is a Save Space in which to be a legalistic conservative, International House is a place where it is safe to embrace multiculturalism. Yet somehow the assertion of very same prerogative by some (unnamed) others is treated as a threatening anomaly. It is difficult to escape the perception that the Dean’s letter is an exemplar of unexamined privilege in action.

Beyond issues of free expression and academic freedom, the basic premise that the existence of safe spaces somehow diminishes the exposure to challenging ideas is highly questionable. Morton Schapiro, President of Northwestern University, has made the case that the existence of safe spaces is essential to exactly the kind of “uncomfortable learning” that higher education is supposed to promote. I don’t know of research, but I strongly suspect that President Schapiro is right. Confrontation with a shocking idea requires time to reflect and process, fear and anger do not contribute to critical analysis, and a place to retreat is a basic element of having the leisure to think and learn.

Could the idea of a safe space be poorly designed or implemented? Of course. And there is a risk of a kind of slippery slope expressed by Judith Shulevitz: “ Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.” In fact, the whole idea behind trigger warnings is precisely that classrooms are not--and should not be--safe spaces. (Otherwise there would be no need for trigger warnings.) Administrators have to be able to stand up to students’ unreasonable or silly demands, just as we would like to see them stand up to mindless student-bashing. Separately, there could be problems of discrimination in how such spaces are created, supported, or administered.

So there are concerns, as there are always concerns. But the idea that a university demonstrates its commitment to freedom of expression by ensuring that there is no place to retreat to—no place anywhere—is breathtakingly wrong as a matter of freedom of expression, academic freedom, and pedagogy.

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