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Todd Gitlin on ‘Hate Speech,’ ‘Safe Spaces,’ and Student Protests

By January 6, 2016

In a wide-ranging interview with openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler published earlier this week, Columbia University professor of journalism and sociology Todd Gitlin offers interesting observations on the recent student protests.

Gitlin, a veteran of decades of protest movements and former president of Students for a Democratic Society, shares thoughtful warnings about the methods employed by current student movements and their desired ends. For example, with regard to calls for bans on “hate speech,” Gitlin warns of a perhaps unintended result: the expansion of the university administrative class. He notes:

The proposed remedies for ‘hate speech’ tend to be administrative. So in practical terms if you demand the policing of speech, what you want is to beef up the university administration. You are accelerating a process, already under way, toward bloating up the administrative apparatus in an increasingly corporatised university. It can’t be a good thing to turn the development of a culture of coexistence and decency–which is what you were rightly proposing–to turn it into a police matter. I think that is misguided, however motivated.

FIRE agrees, and we have voiced similar concerns for years. Likewise, Gitlin articulates arguments advanced by FIRE and other civil libertarians when he states:

What has happened now is that a growing number of students feel that university life should make them comfortable. It’s not only students of colour, who may understandably feel that their teachers don’t look like them. There’s also been the growth of a sentiment that the university exists for its customers, its consumers, who are students, and that life should be sweetened for them. Now, for hard and fast defenders of free speech and of the university as a place of intellectual conflict, among whom I count myself, the point of a university education is precisely to produce a specific sort of discomfort. What happens at a university is that the thoughts you arrived with get jarred, get contested, and you are forced to think. A university is a place where one has to get comfortable with a certain discomfort.

Gitlin’s thoughts on these and other topics are well worth reading in full.