Why the University of Chicago’s Anti–‘Safe Space’ Letter Is Important

Photo: Luiz Gadelha Jr./CC/flickr

As you may have noticed, we’re in the midst of a bit of a culture war with regard to campus activism and campus politics, with a seemingly never-ending series of blowups involving race, power, and free speech occurring on campuses all around the country. Many of the controversies surround the question of whether campus administrators should be able to discipline students or faculty members who make comments that some students find offensive, but which pass First Amendment muster by a very wide margin (on public campuses, administrators can’t regulate protected speech).

In one of those blowups, a Yale administrator endured a firestorm of controversy for arguing in an email that people were too uptight about ethnically or racially charged Halloween costumes, and that there is value in having students debate what’s offensive rather than having administrators dictate the answer to that question from on high; in another, activists made a protracted effort to defund Wesleyan’s biggest student newspaper because it ran an anti–Black Lives Matter opinion column. Coming as they are at a time of heightened national awareness over police violence and other highly racialized issues, these incidents have caused deep fissures on the campuses where they have taken place, and have drawn a huge amount of attention from major national publications (and from ideologues eager to make points about Kids These Days).

A few days ago, the University of Chicago’s dean of students, John Ellison, sparked the latest skirmish in this culture war by sending out a rather assertive letter on the matter to the incoming class of 2020:

It’s a flawed letter that could have been a little less provocative — maybe that was the point — but on the whole, it’s good to see a university making such an affirmative case for a liberal conception of campus free speech. 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.

Let’s get the weirdest part of the letter out of the way before explaining why, on the whole, it’s a hopeful sign:

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.

Well, okay. But trigger warnings, to the extent we have data on their prevalence, appear to be a ghost of an issue on most campuses, and at root they’re just content warnings anyway. The university, as a body, doesn’t “support” an English professor giving students a quick heads-up that there’s a difficult rape scene ahead? In a similar vein, what does it mean to say the university doesn’t “condone intellectual ‘safe spaces’”? Obviously, the university “condones” Christian students’ ability to set up times and places where atheists won’t harangue them, or for LGBT students to set up a place where conservative Christians won’t harangue them. That’s all a “safe space” is in the classical sense of the word. So there’s definitely a bit of pandering in this language — the letter is throwing up a flag for people who are concerned about political correctness on campus, saying, This isn’t that sort of school.

But on the broader question of whether the letter is responding to legitimately worrying trends on some campuses, the answer is yes. Well, a qualified yes, because understanding what’s going on here requires understanding that two seemingly conflicting things can be true at once. First, in addition to the absence of evidence that trigger warnings have any impact on the average college campuses, there’s also solid evidence that many of the tropes that have taken hold about “coddled” or “microaggressed” or “oversensitive” or anti-free-speech college students are seriously overblown. In many cases, these ideas have been bandied about so gleefully and frequently and uncritically by conservatives that the terms themselves have lost all meaning. (Heat Street recently ran an article in which women who simply requested a way to filter out sexual harassment in virtual reality were described derogatorily as wanting “safe spaces.”)

But: There have absolutely been recent instances in which campus outrage has snowballed out of hand, in which protesters have actually impinged on the ability for real debate to take place, and these episodes matter. If you actually read the letter that got Erika Christakis in so much trouble at Yale, for example, it’s clear that the outrage was disproportionate to the content. At Wesleyan, the column that sparked the uproar was far milder than what you’ll hear in the next 15 seconds if you flip on AM radio. And it isn’t just my opinion that these and other campus reactions were overblown — a small but nationally representative survey of campus undergrads from last year found that, despite all the gnashing of teeth about the supposed indoctrination of today’s college students, about 80 percent agree with the statement that “freedom of speech should either be less limited on college campuses or there should be no difference compared to society at large.” If that finding is anywhere close to accurate, the vast majority of students don’t think anyone should get punished for expressing views that progressives find discomfiting or offensive — they accept that it can be true that a debate is offensive to some people, but shouldn’t be shut down.

The problem is that the loudest students’ voices frequently win out: Campus radicals gonna campus radical. And oftentimes in the case of the most high-profile incidents, relatively small groups of activists are, in fact, hijacking various conversations on campuses, and when they do so they often make hysterical claims couched in the appropriated language of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and so on — one unfortunately common argument is that the mere expression of a conservative viewpoint on a campus does psychological harm even to those who don’t attend the event where that viewpoint is expressed. Or take the notion that a public encampment during a protest is a protected zone where normal free-speech rules don’t apply, and it’s okay to physically intimidate a journalist trying to do his job by taking photos of it.

Perhaps because we live in an age of heavily corporatized, risk-averse, “consumer”-focused universities, and/or because universities have wrongly come to the belief that there is no way to support students from marginalized groups while also vigorously defending free expression, administrators have often been tepid on these issues. They haven’t stood up and expressed an important, very widely held view: Colleges can’t ban conversations that the rest of the country is having, even if they’re offensive to some students. At Emory University, for example, a small group of activists claimed that they had suffered psychological damage due to the fact that a student or students had chalked Trump around campus. In one of the most depressing administrative actions of this whole recent trend, administrators responded by claiming they would check security cameras to try to track down the offending chalkers (and then proceeded to drop the matter once the spotlight dimmed). It’s impossible to say there’s not a problem here at all when a major, highly ranked university investigates — or feels compelled to pretend to investigate — students for supporting the Republican nominee for president.

Suffice it to say that in all likelihood, campus administrators don’t want to be in a position of investigating and policing students for expressing forms of political speech that are undeniably protected off campus. They probably wish they could be more forthright in protecting freedom of speech, but are worried about being seen as reactionary or pro-oppression simply for exhorting the values that have long defined the liberal university.

The UChicago letter, then, could be a useful nudge to help get other, more timorous university administrators to stand up and do their jobs.