Safe spaces letter to freshmen goes viral

Students, academics take sides

A letter to incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago (U of C) is making the rounds in academia and reigniting a debate over freedom of speech, trigger-warnings, and safe spaces.

Dean of Students John Ellison penned a note that told students they would not be protected from arguments or ideas.

"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," Ellison wrote.

In January 2015, U of C created a statement of free expression for campus, noting that speakers should not be bothered by student protestors and students should not be shielded from "unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive" ideas.

Jeremy Manier, a U of C spokesperson, says the school is not banning trigger warnings and that professors may use them if they so choose. Students may also still create intellectual safe spaces on campus.

The primary point of the letter was to tell freshmen that "the university itself isn't an intellectual safe space," according Geoffrey Stone, a U of C law professor and former provost who led the committee that drafted the freedom of expression statement.

The article reignited a nationwide debate about free speech on campus that has been simmering since a wave of student protests last academic year.

In the wake of the article, some students and industry leaders have defended safe spaces and trigger warnings.

"I don't think the students are advocating for getting a free pass, looking at the syllabus and saying, 'Oh, I don't like this topic, I'm not going to go to class,'" senior Elizabeth Adetiba told Chronicle of Higher Education.

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In an op-ed written before—but published in the Los Angeles Times after—Ellison's letter came out, Lewis and Clark College President Barry Glassner and Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro defended student protestors.

"We have less patience with pundits and politicians who opine from gated communities and segregated offices about campus incidents that, for all their notoriety, are utterly unrepresentative of the main points of tension on campuses," they wrote. "For every example of students demanding safe places or trigger warnings so as to avoid material they consider offensive or upsetting, innumerable LGBT students and students of color found themselves in situations where they were affronted or physically threatened."

Others praised U of C for defending the campus from practices they see as threats to free speech and academic freedom.

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The university bucked "the trend at colleges and universities across the country by refusing to pander to the delicate but demanding 'snowflakes' and 'crybullies' who've tyrannized American campuses over the past few years," Roger Pilon wrote on the libertarian Cato Institute blog.

New York Magazine writer Jesse Singal spoke up to support the letter as well.

"Pundits trying to play political football with this issue act like it's a left versus right thing, or a crazy-young-people versus rational-older-people thing, but in reality, there's a strong case to be made that most students favor a liberal conception of campus free-speech rights; they're just quieter about their preferences than the activists who believe that open debate of controversial subjects is harmful," Singal wrote.

U of C President Robert Zimmer wrote an op-ed championing campus free speech in the Wall Street Journal last week.

"Free speech is at risk at the very institution where it should be assured: the university," he wrote, adding "What is the value of a university education without encountering, reflecting on and debating ideas that differ from the ones that students brought with them to college?" (McMurtrie, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/26; Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 8/29; Pérez-Peña, et al., New York Times, 8/26; Zimmer, Wall Street Journal, 8/26).

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