Free Speech Conference at Mizzou Provides Forum for Valuable Discussion of Safe Spaces

September 20, 2016

Last week, I had the privilege of discussing the topic of “Free Speech on Campus” at the Price Sloan Symposium for Media, Ethics and Law at the University of Missouri School of Law. The one-and-a-half day conference brought together a multidisciplinary group of experts in the social sciences, law, and journalism to discuss what to do about the fact that free speech, once a given on college campuses, has become controversial.

Not surprisingly, the subject of “safe spaces” came up throughout the conference. The concept was introduced to the conference audience via written remarks by professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School. Safe spaces next came up in a debate between political pundit Kirsten Powers and commentator Sally Kohn. Kohn stated that when she was in college, some places were marked with a pink or rainbow triangle, indicating that they were a “safe space” for LGBTQ students. Although Kohn never felt the need to use these spaces herself, she appreciated that they existed and knew that other students used them when they needed a place to recuperate after experiencing homophobia on campus.

The two women could not reach consensus, however, on the meaning of “safety,” and thus had trouble shedding light on how a university should deal with the call for safe spaces. While Powers drew a distinction between physical safety and feeling uncomfortable, Kohn insisted that the two were essentially the same. So while Powers refused to concede that the appearance of a controversial speaker—like Christina Hoff Sommers, for example—could ever be “dangerous” to students, Kohn insisted that the students’ feelings were the determining factor in assessing whether speech was threatening or not.

A roundtable on “Law and Culture” followed. I participated, along with University of Illinois Professor Benjamin Holden and graduate student and President of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students Kristofferson Culmer. We all agreed that, in one form or another, “safe spaces” are a well-established aspect of campus life—whether it be a fraternity or sorority, College Democrats or Republicans, women’s center, black student union, and so forth. These organizations have their own rules designed to serve the needs of their members, which everyone agreed is fine. But, as Professor Holden put it, an entire university could never be a “safe space,” because ideas deemed “unsafe” are really just unpopular. For example, while chalking “Trump 2016” might cause an uproar, chalking “Not Trump 2016,” he opined, would not provoke any reaction at all. Professor Holden concluded that an “institutionally mandated” separation from uncomfortable ideas would not serve students well.

Culmer, for his part, encouraged students and administrators to acknowledge and engage with marginalized groups on campus and, in turn, to consider the role of the university in managing or mandating safe spaces:

I think we need to ask ourselves the question: “What situations precipitated the need for someone, or a group of people, to want a safe space?” … The fact of the matter is there are many groups of students who feel hurt, who are disenfranchised, who need a space to speak with people who are going through the same situation as they are. [But] whether the university has a right or a responsibility to mandate that type of space, I don’t know. But I think we need to recognize that there is the need for those groups of people to actually have a space where they can speak.

So the panel moved on from the question of whether safe spaces exist, to why so many students think they are more necessary now than ever, and how universities should respond.

Culmer, who is black, told the story of being the only non-white person at a party. When someone suggested a group picture, the aunt of the hostess told him to get out of the photo because “he didn’t belong.” He emphasized that universities should give students of color a place where they can come to terms with such racism. FIRE believes universities should provide a forum where students can discuss incidents like this openly and honestly. Culmer himself questioned why universities felt the need to “quiet” the situation—as he put it—whenever students try to engage on questions related to race.

It was extremely rewarding to be able to participate in this panel and engage in thoughtful discussion on what is often a very contentious topic. Kudos to the conference organizers for hosting an event where people could discuss free speech on campus and engage in open discussion about issues that are important to students—and the rest of us.