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Last week, University of Chicago Dean of Students and former Harvard Administrative Board Secretary John “Jay” Ellison sent a letter to incoming freshmen stating his opposition to safe spaces, content warnings, and other restrictions on expression. The missive has been contentious, with some arguing that it was a publicity stunt or hypocritical.
In our view, the genesis of safe spaces and content warnings ought to be uncontroversial; they work to create an academic environment in which people feel free to speak their mind, without any fear of harassment or abuse. Fostering that atmosphere must be one of the foremost priorities of any institution of higher education. When attacks on individuals’ humanity are tolerated or long-settled questions of race and gender are exhumed, any community is moved backwards. There is a crucial distinction to be drawn between free speech and hate speech.
For these reasons, legitimate efforts like those at Yale to prevent Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking aren’t questions of freedom of expression. Dedication to First Amendment speech rights endorses racial or sexual harassment no more than a commitment to the right to assemble implies support for Nazi marches through Skokie.
Ultimately, however, these examples are red herrings. In the vast majority of cases, speech or assembly ought to be sacred. Rational and reasonable people can disagree about the precise lines between the unacceptable and the inflammatory, or between the bigoted and the simply questionable, but content that falls clearly on the wrong side of that divide shouldn’t be the focus of a debate over campus activism. Universities are communities with dual responsibilities to free expression and their members.
Beyond the most extreme examples of hate speech on campus, the core idea behind safe spaces and content warnings—that debates which include all are freer ones than debates which exclude—can become lost. Mainstream leaders in law enforcement, government, and international development have been prevented from speaking at universities under the wrongheaded assumption that inclusivity means censorship of unpopular views. While the University of Chicago may have overstepped in issuing a blanket condemnation of safe spaces and content warnings, its letter was also a reaction to the suppression of speech that has every right to be heard on university campuses everywhere.
Universities should strive to strike a balance between ensuring students’ right to express dissent and combatting kind of vitriol that stifles, rather than furthers, free discussion in a free society. In their original forms, safe spaces and content warnings can help achieve this goal, but at their most extreme, they can threaten it. Guarding against absolutism on either side of issues of campus speech is the work to which all American institutions of higher learning should commit themselves.
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