Are safe spaces drowning out free speech on campus?

Editorialist says colleges allow students to 'self-infantilize'

A recent New York Times op-ed by Judith Shulevitz argues that colleges are allowing students to "self-infantilize" by clamping down on potentially offensive speech.

The essay prompted a flood of commentary, criticism, and support.

Shulevitz's op/ed focuses on "safe spaces," areas on campus where marginalized groups can be protected from aggression, ridicule, and bias. For example, student members of a Sexual Assault Task Force at Brown University set up a safe space during a debate about campus sexual assault. (One guest invited to the debate was known for opposing the term "rape culture," and some students were concerned that her comments could be upsetting to sexual assault survivors.) The task force arranged for a recuperation room that featured soothing music, blankets, snacks, toys, and a video of puppies.

One student who helped organize the room says that she spent some time listening to the debate, but then left after "feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs."

Shulevitz acknowledges that safe spaces are mostly "innocuous gatherings of like-minded people" and that they "seem like a perfectly fine idea." However, she argues that safe spaces are beginning to expand beyond their walls and take over campus. "The notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading," Shulevitz writes. "Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they must be made safer."

Shulevitz lists several examples in which, she says, a desire to protect students from a "hostile environment" led to a silencing of free speech:

  • At Columbia University, a group named Everyone Allied Against Homophobia slid fliers under dorm room doors that said, "I want this to be a safer space;"
  • At Northwestern University, students protested professor Laura Kipnis' article criticizing a culture of "sexual paranoia" on campus;
  • At Oxford University, administrators called off a planned debate about abortion, which students had protested because the guests were both male;
  • At Hampshire College, a student group cancelled a planned concert by an Afrofunk band after students criticized the group for having too many white musicians;
  • At Smith College, the president apologized for inviting a guest who argued against censoring historical racist speech and not objecting when the guest used a racial epithet that offended some students; and,
  • At the University of Chicago, a student challenged a guest speaker (a journalist at Charlie Hebdo), leading to dueling op-eds in the student newspaper.

In all cases, Shulevitz notes, the protestors invoked language of safety.

Shulevitz proposes some possible reasons for the trend. Universities are caught between the Title VII and Title IX mandates to protect certain groups from a "hostile environment" and the First Amendment mandate to permit free speech, she suggests.

Alternately, Shulevitz says, new feminist and anti-racist legal theory, combined with a new "quasi-medicalized terminology of trauma," has led administrators to believe that students should be protected from some speech.

Is she right?

Shulevitz' essay spurred commentary, criticism, and support in a range of major media outlets, student newspapers, and personal blogs.

For example, writing in the Amherst Student, undergraduate Shruthi Badri argues, "The truth is, students aren't scared of the big mean ideas. They're weary of constantly fighting just to have a starting point for their own thoughts to be considered from."

At the Washington Post, Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner acknowledged that Shulevitz recounted some troubling stories—but argues that she misrepresented some of the anecdotes. Drezner also points out that Shulevitz included only anecdotes in her article, but did not include any longitudinal data.

Drezner disputes Shulevitz's characterization of the incident at Northwestern as a case in which free speech was threatened. Rather, he says, the professor "exercised her right to free speech, students exercised their right to same… and no one got fired."

However, Drezner acknowledges that colleges "[do] a disservice to the educational mission" if they cancel speakers or other events merely to protect students from being offended (Shulevitz, New York Times, 3/21; Drezner, Washington Post, 3/23; Badri, Amherst Student, 3/22).

The takeaway: A recent New York Times op-ed argued free speech on campus is threatened by a rising trend to protect students from being offended.

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