Consider two events at the University of Chicago.
In the first instance, Zineb El Rhazoui, a Charlie Hebdo journalist, spoke at the University of Chicago Law School not long after the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked in Paris. El Rhazoui had her critics: Student Aseal Tineh criticized Rhazoui in the question-and-answer session for supposedly marginalizing the global Muslim population. She asked, “Why do I have to be Charlie Hebdo?” Rhazoui responded, in part, “Today, being Charlie Hebdo means to die for a drawing, because of its own ideas, and because of a certain idea of freedom. And not everyone, excuse me, has the balls to die for his ideas.” Describing the constant security she is forced to surround herself with, she said, “I am threatened.” Tineh responded, “I am threatened too.” Not long after, an op-ed in The Chicago Maroon student newspaper argued:
El Rhazoui did not appear concerned about ensuring that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions and the organizers and moderators gave someone in a relative position of power—El Rhazoui—free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the University, making it more difficult for other members who felt marginalized to freely voice their opinion without fear of dismissal.
After the event, a letter to the editor of The Chicago Maroon was circulated, titled “Freedom of speech should have been met with accountability at Charlie Hebdo event.”
In the second instance, after a contentious debate between Dan Savage, Ana Marie Cox, and an audience at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP) over whether the word “tranny” should be reclaimed, a petition circulated asking the IOP to formally apologize. The reason? “Savage continued to use the slur [the word “tranny”] despite knowing it was making students feel unsafe and both Cox and the IOP staff did nothing to stop him.” An op-ed in The Chicago Maroon argued exactly what its headline promised: “Permitting slurs does not foster open discourse.” The op-ed claimed that Savage’s speech went beyond the pale and that the IOP should have “intervened” to maintain “a safe and engaging space for students of all backgrounds.”
In both the El Rhazoui case and the Savage case, the claims that people were made to feel unsafe were patently ridiculous; indeed, it is claims like these that make students wary of engaging in public dialogue. El Rhazoui did little more than vocally disagree with a student who didn’t share her worldview. Savage, an activist for LGBT rights, used the word “tranny” in a conversation about reclaiming the word. Certainly, both speakers were controversial; certainly both caused offense. But all speech has the potential to cause offense, and it’s ridiculous to compare a supposedly condescending put-down or a controversial refusal to censor a slur with an attack on people’s physical safety. The audience members who claimed they were made to feel unsafe used the events they attended as a way of challenging the speakers’ views. They were quite within their rights to do so, but if students have the ability to challenge speakers, then speakers must have the ability to respond without having their views labeled as “unsafe.” Indeed, open dialogue cannot survive at all on campus if emotionally charged debate is seen as intrinsically harmful or dangerous.
The cynical view of all this is that students cite “safety” as a concern because they know how powerful it can be to call something “unsafe.” Labeling particular speech unsafe, after all, forecloses the possibility of debate on the merits: By making the matter about the welfare of the participants involved—rather than the content of the issue being disputed—students can push speech they disagree with beyond the social pale. By arguing that student organizations fail in their responsibility to attend to the safety of the space whenever they host speakers who argue for views that transgress prevailing campus norms, students are effectively lobbying to restrict campus events to uncontroversial speakers.
I’m a student at the University of Chicago, and my experience has been that dialogue works well on a small scale. Get the Marxist and the laissez-faire economics student (both of whom who are in full force at the university) in a small room and you’ll get a hell of a debate. But on a larger scale, there’s relatively little interest in debating something like the matter of global Islam or whether slurs should be reclaimed, particularly in public forums. While there are probably many reasons for this, I have heard from a number of students that they feel wary commenting on divisive issues because they worry that other individuals will label their speech personally objectionable or harmful, at which point the speaker knows that she will either have to back down or be ostracized and condemned for harming other students.
The one thing everyone is willing to talk about, thankfully, is free speech. Whenever a controversy such as the Dan Savage incident or the Zineb El Rhazoui incident takes place on campus, students rush en masse to Facebook to debate whether or not the speech or speaker in question crossed a line. One politically involved student I know recently began his comment on a major Facebook discussion by stating: “I would like to get this in here before the free speech brigades arrive …” But the reason why there are committed brigades of free speech defenders is that they know how high the stakes are: If a consensus develops that offensive speech is “unsafe” to the groups it offends, then the only opinions and the only speakers permitted on campus will be those squarely in the campus mainstream.
Max Bloom is a FIRE summer intern.