Free Speech and Safe Spaces

By Rebecca McCarron

Institutions of higher learning across the United States have made headlines recently for raging debates sparked, in large part, by policies on diversity. These institutions are chiefly Yale University and the University of Missouri, although Princeton, Dartmouth, and Smith have also made headlines.

In general, these schools have faced backlash from students who feel administrators have not done enough to promote and protect the interests and wellbeing of minority students on campus. Sometimes this can refer to speakers giving talks on campus or a university’s failure to address speech that could be considered “triggering” or a “microaggression.”

For Yale, the controversy began with an e-mail concerning Halloween costumes, as described in the Washington Post. Erika Christakis, a Silliman College associate master, sent a response to an Intercultural Affairs Council email. The Intercultural Affairs email asked for students’ sensitivity concerning the cultural associations of Halloween costumes. In her email, Christakis supported students’ right to wear whatever costumes they liked and challenged students who were concerned about cultural insensitivity to be tolerant and to treat the holiday as an opportunity for discussion.

The situation at Yale was further aggravated when a fraternity on campus faced allegations of having held a “white girls only” party the following weekend. The fraternity brothers allegedly denied non white female students’ entry to a party on Halloween weekend, the Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile at the University of Missouri, protests by students concerning unaddressed incidents of racial discrimination led to the university president’s resignation. Although as Melissa Korn, Mark Peters, and Douglas Belkin explain in “Race Wasn’t the Only Issue at University of Missouri” for the Wall Street Journal: “Racial tensions were merely the tip of the iceberg.” The administration also faced negative reactions from the student body due to issues related to academic publishing, health benefits for graduate students, and the administration’s response to the incidents in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, just to name a few.

In a November briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said protests at both schools speak to the “fundamental issue of ensuring that there is a home for everyone [on college campuses].  However, others argue that these debates raise a larger question about the intensity of political correctness on college campuses and to what extent that restricts freedom of speech.

Consider the case of Gerald Walpin, a lawyer and former U.S. Inspector General who faced student coalitions that sought to prevent him from speaking at Yale, his alma mater, despite an invitation from another student group.

In his op-ed on the demise of academic freedom in the Washington Times. Walpin writes:

“This was not simply an attack on my free speech right. It was an attack on all students’ right to obtain the benefit of free speech by hearing different views. Most disconcerting, it was not a single incident, but one of many in the nationwide movement at schools to suppress any thinking that the self-appointed student and faculty thought-police find unacceptable.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, supports this idea. He writes: “Unfortunately, new research also shows that academia has itself stopped short in both the understanding and practice of true diversity—the diversity of ideas.

Critics of political correctness, like the self-described Committee for the Defense of Freedom at Yale described in Salon, argue that students who belong to minority groups should feel safe and included on campuses and that “safe spaces” do not necessarily refer to emotional safety, but the students’ right to move about their campuses free from racial intolerance in the form of “hate speech.Others argue these protests involve factors besides free speech. In “From Megaphones to Muzzles” for U.S News and World Report, Susan Milligan writes that the “not so new [idea] of the student as customer, a high tuition-paying consumer college administrators don’t want to agitate,” as well as “social media and the Internet, which have made young people accustomed to immediate responses,” also have contributed to the climate of the recent protests.

However, the debate leaves many with unanswered questions. For some, the question relates to Chris Martin’s definition of what constitutes a safe space. A Phi Beta Kappa alum from Denison University who served as a United States Marine from 2007 to 2011, Martin wrote to The Atlantic that he agrees there is racism on college campuses, but…

“Speaking as a veteran who saw combat, and who had friends killed and wounded, it is difficult for me to reconcile the idea that campuses are not “safe spaces” for students. To me, a “safe space” is one in which no one is actively trying to kill you. Forget micro-aggressions; there is a large subset of students on American campuses who spent many of their formative years being shot at and blown up by IEDs.”

Issues of clarity, then, can easily arise from confusion over the precise definition of a safe space.

Certainly both sides of this argument have value. The kind of broad, liberal arts-based education that Phi Beta Kappa supports has always been about the ability to connect with others. Of course, in order to truly connect one must be open to considering all sides of a particular issue. Naturally, sometimes one encounters those whose ideas are so vastly different that those ideas are considered not only downright offensive, but restrictive in and of themselves.

How does one determine a distinct difference between ideas that are uncomfortable or unpalatable and concepts that actually restrict the innate rights of others? Is this really a question of one versus another, or is it about how to merge two apparently conflicting, yet fundamentally similar, viewpoints?

Proponents of each side, it seems, seek different means to the same end, which is to improve the quality of higher education by cultivating broad exposure to different ideas, different fields of knowledge, and different human perspectives. So, as students, faculty, and administrators discuss the best courses of action, it is important to remember that individuals with opposing views actually share the same goal—to improve students’ experiences at our country’s institutions of higher learning in order to better foster connections with others.

Rebecca McCarron is a junior at The Catholic University of America majoring in history and minoring in Spanish. The Catholic University of America is home to the Beta of D.C. Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.