The University of Chicago recently distributed a welcome letter to incoming freshman refusing its support of collegiate “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” As written by the Dean of Students, Jay Ellison, “the University of Chicago’s defining characteristic is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression … we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The letter has reintroduced the highly debated topic of freedom of speech and expression.
The place of free expression within an educational institution remains ambiguous. Supporters of the letter equate safe spaces to a form of censorship, a means for students to disregard upsetting or differing views. Such students have been criticized for being “coddled” in a nation that was not built to serve them. Universities have experienced increased student backlash for inviting controversial speakers, resulting in the cancellation of certain events. These occurrences reinforce the notion of censorship by negating free speech.
“I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view,” stated President Barack Obama in a town hall. “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn.” As an alumni of the University of Chicago, President Obama’s perspective further acknowledges the merits of free expression sans censorship.
Despite the remarks of President Obama, he has never called into question the significance of safe spaces within an institution. Perhaps because the connotation of a safe space has been manipulated to encompass aspects of censorship, coddling and controversy. The Multicultural Resource Center repudiates this association through its definition of a safe space: “Safe spaces are spaces that are created of, by and for members of marginalized or underrepresented social groupings who share common (or similar) histories and experiences, and/or are routinely subjected to and similarly impacted by socioeconomic, cultural, political and other societal hierarchies and oppression. Conversations that occur within these spaces are instrumental in empowering underrepresented groups to develop their own voice which is crucial to facilitating constructive dialogue between marginalized and
Safe spaces have historically been a response to forms of prejudice and oppression. A safe space is represented by marginalized populations within an institution, but in no way does a safe space represent an institution as a whole. So acknowledging safe spaces within an institute should not equate to the censorship of free expression. Safe spaces should be neither exclusionary nor divisive but should encourage the formation of ideas and perspectives that differ from more privileged populations.
The University of Chicago has failed to accurately interpret the significance of a safe space and has failed to understand its role within an institution. As further stated by Dean of Students Jay Ellison, “civility and mutual respect are vital to us all … you will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.”
Safe spaces encourage this development, while also providing students the tools to formulate constructive criticism and discourse. Akin to the statements of President Obama, the students who represent a safe space should not obstruct the expression of opinions differing from their own. Instead, students must listen, learn and dialogue with those with alternative opinions.