“Safe spaces” are a threat to free speech and college campuses

Paul Hazelton

A troubling trend has weaved its way into collegiate culture: so-called “safe spaces.” For those of you who are unaware, a “safe space” is essentially a physical zone where like-minded people meet to affirm their collective opinions while guarding each other against offensive or opposing ideas.

Brown University held a safe space recently during a debate about rape culture. The safe space was intended to provide a comforting environment for those who found the debate too unsettling. Another safe zone was formed at Mizzou, where racial tensions and a lack of action by the administration prompted student protest. After the school’s president stepped down, students and teachers cordoned off the quad in an attempt to exclude the media who they assumed would skew the story. Yale erupted in protest after a lecturer questioned whether children should be barred from wearing cultural stereotypes as Halloween costumes, saying, “Is there no room anymore for a child to be a little bit obnoxious . . . a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” This was likewise blacklisted with no substantive discord pertaining to the merits of the argument. On the same note, students at Duke declared the phrase “man up” and others were unacceptable forms of speech. 


The list goes on like that for so long that a full synopsis could fill this column.

But to many in the student body, all this seems justifiable given the circumstances. Our politically correct culture surely dictates that no one should ever have to hear blatantly offensive ideas that might harm their sensitivities. Many would argue that these safe spaces are a good thing.

But the Constitution of the United States would adamantly disagree. As college students, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the First Amendment states speech, no matter how offensive, is not to be infringed upon unless posing direct and imminent harm. America is based on the marketplace of ideas. Bad ideas will not be purchased at this market, and with any luck will be driven to extinction. 

But that’s a given and you might ask, “What about the moral perspective, Paul? Shouldn’t students be free of racist, homophobic or sexist speech while attending school?” While I think that might be neat, I would have to say no.

Aside from the fact that this is a contemporary impossibility, colleges are institutes of learning where ideas are meant to be debated openly. Students are meant to encounter ideas that challenge their worldviews, even if they are interpreted as highly offensive and/or outdated. Safe spaces negate this from happening. They swaddle students in a cocoon of their own preconceived notions while walling out reality or anyone who might disagree.

Safe spaces do not exist in the real world. People are mean. People are offensive. People are bigoted and cruel in the real world. Allowing ourselves these safe spaces hardly informs us of how we should respond to these perspectives.

Besides, by jamming our fingers into our ears and screaming “Na, na, na, boo, boo I can’t hear you,” we miss out on the other side of the argument and make ourselves the villains in the process. Just check the news reel or the opinion articles posted on various publications about our generation. We are perceived, quite fairly, as a bunch of sheltered wusses.

And what happens when the people that hold the conservative ideals– the very ones safe spaces are meant to exclude– decide that they want safe spaces of their own? Will we be barred from giving them a piece of our mind as well? Aren’t safe spaces hypocritical, given that, in the past, colleges barred speech from civil rights leaders and other progressives? With this precedent in mind, will debate be barred from college campuses if it involves anything even remotely offensive? 

Now, I get it. People shouldn’t be bombarded with hateful and demeaning speech everywhere they go, especially when they’re trying to earn a degree. I understand that in the case of Mizzou, the students precived the media as detrimental actors who have historically misrepresented African-Americans. I grasp that sexual assault victims have a hard time listening to debates about the subject and so on. I agree that no one should have to put up with any of this, but do we honestly think that limiting the conversation will solve the root problems of racism or sexism? And exactly how much free speech are we willing to cut to make this idealistic world materialize? Do we want campuses where professors weigh their every utterance for fear of career suicide? Do we want campuses free of any and all controversy? Do we want campuses where words, and therefore ideas, are outlawed?

That sounds boring to me. As a journalist, the current degradation–no matter what the reason–of free speech is appalling, even more so because my fellow peers are the perpetrators. South Park perhaps said it best two weeks ago when when a character named Reality said,  “What’s amater with you people? You’re sad that people are mean? Well I’m sorry, the world isn’t one big liberal arts college campus!”


I’ll leave you with one last note: The irony of this situation is palpable. In our quest to be heard we are now fundamentally undermining the right that grants us that legal ability. If this trend continues the ramifications of our actions will be felt across the nation and our generation will be its champion. It’s conceivable that in the near future people will use this new societal precedent to justify all manner of speech related exclusions. So please, whatever your opinion think on the questions I’ve posed you and think critically because we are balancing on the tight-wire between free speech and comfortable, self imposed censorship.

Collegian columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.