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Protection Against Ideas: Campus “Safety” in the 21st Century

By Jacob Cohen | Position Paper

The audience of this paper are college students and administrations throughout the United States. This paper was sent directly to the office of Lee C. Bollinger, the President of Columbia University, because of the particular relevance the topics discussed have to the current, politically correct climate of the university. The paper discusses matters that pertain to college students on a general level and delves into specific actions taken and statements made by universities or their administrators. The paper addresses concepts and issues that universities across the United States, including Columbia, face with regard to “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “speech codes” that exist under the umbrella known widely as “PC-culture.” The paper proves the harmful effects that “safe” policies have on the value of college education and the legal barriers that render them unconstitutional. The paper then offers a practical solution to the addressed issues, using the University of Maryland’s current policies as a template for college students and administrations around the United States to consider.

Last summer, I received a text message from a close friend who had been accepted to the University of Chicago. He sent me the text of a letter that John Ellison, U-Chicago’s Dean of Students, shared with the incoming freshman class. I glanced over one segment of the letter which described the university’s “commitment to academic freedom.” This included a vow not to turn away invited speakers whose topics could be controversial and a promise not to support the use of “trigger warnings” and intellectual “safe spaces” (Ellison). Recognizing the controversial nature of Ellison’s statement, I immediately replied, “This is going to be a fun week for the U-Chicago administration.”

The statement from Mr. Ellison is one response to the ongoing debate over the use of “politically correct” policies at colleges that many CEO’s, politicians, and intellectuals argue are insulating American students’ minds and infringing upon the First Amendment. These policies include “safe spaces,” a concept that more specifically incorporates the notions of trigger warnings and speech codes. Interestingly, many college administrations across the country have implemented procedures to ensure that conditions comply under these notions, and justified them as acts of empathy, inclusivity, and security (Runyowa). However, it is increasingly evident that these policies are more damaging to students’ intellects and less compliant with constitutional law than advocates of safe spaces might claim. Fortunately, as exemplified by the University of Maryland’s “Inclusive Language Campaign,” there are ways to address the individual sensitivities of students without subjecting them to the restrictiveness of “safe” policies.

Safe spaces became popular shortly before the formation of the dominant American cultural movements of the 1960’s and were primarily used for community-based organizing efforts (Ali 4). To the queer community, for example, a safe space was used as a location in which they could comfortably and outwardly express their identities. Likewise, as the influence of the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s grew on campuses, “safe spaces” referred to locations at which members of these groups could assemble. Physical safe spaces were “an integral part of the movement-building process, and created opportunities for intersectional communication and cross issue dialogue” (Ali 4). Currently, although physical safe spaces are found on many campuses, the term commonly signifies general areas, institutions, or whole communities.

In this paper, “safe spaces” primarily refers to “safe campuses,” or “safe policies,” rather than a specific physical space. The safe campus is a college campus in which the administration offers broad support of modern political correctness philosophy through specific safe policies. One such policy is the implementation of speech codes which, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), are “university regulations prohibiting expression that would be constitutionally protected in society at large” (State of the Law). Some colleges also implement a safe policy known as “trigger warnings.” These are “written or spoken warnings…to alert students that course material might be traumatic for people with particular life experiences,” and can appear on syllabi, within required books or readings, before guest speakers, or on social media posts (Brown). Laurie Essig, an associate professor of Sociology and Gender studies at Middlebury College, notes that the use of trigger warnings is rapidly growing as a result of students increasingly requesting modifications to course content that might provoke negative emotions; “what started out as a slow trickle of trigger warnings is now a tsunami” (Brown). It is clear that the use of safe policies, like trigger warnings, is increasing at colleges throughout the United States, and therefore dialogue over these policies’ consequences is particularly important.

This paper intends to prove the harmful effects that safe policies have on the value of college education and the legal safeguards that should render such policies unconstitutional. The paper addresses notable groups, individuals, and academics who warn that safe policies can prevent the stimulatory dialogue that promotes critical thinking and civil maturity on college campuses. The paper also describes the concerns some college educators express about the damage that safe policies incur. For example, the American Association of University Professors claims that safe policies limit the benefits that an intellectually diverse educational experience provides. In addition, the paper touches on legal matters regarding safe policies, and explains why, according to organizations and experts in the field including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), many of the policies violate constitutional rights. The paper then examines significant student support of safe policies and the possible positive motivations, some advocates and educators claim, that lay behind them. However, the paper refutes these claims by determining that this support cannot simply justify a proper mode of action. The paper then addresses and concludes that there are ways to simultaneously maintain constitutional standards and educational integrity while caring for the specific needs of students as exemplified by the University of Maryland.

The American Association of University Professors argues that interactions with unsettling ideas and hostile speech, from which safe space proponents shield themselves, create an intellectually stimulating college environment. Many “safe” critics maintain that while engaging with these concepts can often be “heated and uncomfortable,” these type of exchanges are essential for a productive academic setting (Tsesis 1917). What safe space critics especially fear is the notion that, with the implementation of safe space policies, students might not even be able to engage in a discussion about complicated topics such as racism, let alone address these issues in their lives. Speaking to this point in his 2016 commencement speech at the University of Michigan, Michael Bloomberg argued, “one of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views” (Gass). Similarly, Bradley Campbell, Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, and Jason Manning, Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University, noted that this “safe” system has led to a victimhood culture, the inability of students to handle matters on their own, and a society rife with moral conflict (Campbell and Manning). In addressing the aforementioned issues, some American colleges have taken a firm stance against safe policies in the interest of protecting their institutions’ educational value.

For example, recently, UC-Berkeley has dealt with a number of situations regarding safe policies, including its handling of violent backlash and calls for cancellations of on-campus speeches by conservative commentators. Regarding this backlash, in an October 2016 letter to students, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ wrote that “public institutions like UC-Berkeley must permit speakers invited…to speak, without discrimination in regard to point of view” (Elinson). Many educators, like Christ, are sensitive to the student majority that request some form of “safe” regulations on campus, yet worry about the policies’ potential consequences. Christ herself has emphasized that the university would be “providing students with a less valuable education, preparing them less well for the world after graduation,” if it “tried to shelter them from ideas that many find wrong, even dangerous” (Elinson). Interestingly, aside from posing a threat to students’ education, many educators find safe policies unnecessary. According to a recent study assessing psychology instructors’ opinions toward trigger warning use, 31% of the instructors measured their opinion of trigger warnings as neither negative nor favorable, while 44% assessed their stance as either somewhat or extremely negative (Boysen 337). The evidence is clear that many teachers either view trigger warnings as useless or consider them especially harmful.

One noteworthy academic that finds safe policies harmful is former Yale University professor Erika Christakis. In 2015, Christakis was dismissed after her email to the student body “urging Yale University students to think critically about an official set of guidelines on costumes to avoid at Halloween,” received immense student backlash (Christakis). She suggested the university test a different approach with regard to safe policies, reflecting students’ personal accountability and based on “implied control” as opposed to strict regulations, in a sense complimenting students for their mature responsibility. Student responses to the email included spontaneous public confrontations with Christakis and her husband, in which hostile verbal attacks were directed toward them. Almost a month after the critical reactions began, Christakis resigned from her position at Yale. Following her resignation, Christakis penned an open letter in which she stated, “it’s never easy to foster dialogue about race, class, gender and culture, but it will only become more difficult for faculty in disciplines concerned with the human condition if universities won’t declare that ideas and feelings aren’t interchangeable.” Christakis also indicated that, by implementing safe policies, universities risk “shortchanging students’ intellectual maturation and gradual assumption of autonomy.” In other words, students’ reliance increases on safe policies to resolve their issues, thus decreasing the value of these students’ college education.

On a different front, according to the ACLU, “inculcating constitutional values—in particular, the value of free expression—should be nothing less than a core mission of any college or university” (Speech). Since its creation in 1920, the ACLU has advocated for the freedom of speech on colleges campuses and believes that protecting all forms of speech on campus, including potentially provocative speech,  is what most closely adheres to constitutional values. By enacting speech codes, canceling controversial speeches, and prohibiting professors from teaching freely, institutions of higher education are testing constitutional boundaries, particularly that of the First Amendment (Schroeder 328). As a result, safe space critics have become more vocal about whether these actions “unconstitutionally undermine specific students’ expressive freedoms” (Tsesis 1865). Many of these critics reference a 2018 FIRE survey which found that 32.3 percent of colleges support policies that severely infringe on students’ freedom of speech (Spotlight). The survey also found that more than 58 percent of colleges maintain certain speech codes. Although the administrators who implemented these policies were likely well intentioned, they have not necessarily fully examined the “legal ramifications of placing restrictions on speech, particularly at public universities,” essential when considering certain safe policies.

Nearly all speech is protected by the First Amendment but, historically, the Supreme Court has outlined a few exceptions to the amendment. This includes speech that: “violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment” or “that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests” (Stone). These types of speech are known as “imminent threats of harm…true threats…and fighting words,” and states can prohibit them without violating the first amendment (Tsesis 1891-92, 1895). Public universities must also adhere by a “statutory mandate…to censure harassment,” an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Tsesis 1891). However, these are extremely narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of speech and they provide little guidance for colleges grappling with these broad issues. Because of these limited exceptions, colleges have run into legal hurdles as a result of their decisions regarding speeches by controversial political commentators that were invited onto campus by student organizations. Some colleges, for example, have considered refusing to provide campus resources during some of these events, assets they legally “cannot selectively withhold” on the basis that a speaker might “advocate a controversial point of view” (Maloney). Clearly, colleges struggle to uphold constitutional obligations when implementing safe policies.
Although, in recent decades, federal courts have vetoed speech restrictions at many colleges, many institutions still sustain some form of unconstitutional policies. According to Cliff Maloney Jr., “these often-unconstitutional policies exclude new and competing ideas, and are antithetical to a free academia” (Maloney). “Safe” critics, like Maloney Jr., recently praised UC Berkeley for making a serious effort to abide by constitutional standards, after the college spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide security during speeches by conservative commentators Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro (Watanabe). Many of these critics argue that although “the liberty of open dialogue” can be abused inappropriately, “some discomfort is inevitable” on campuses in order for students to “become informed and responsible democratic citizens” as well as lawful ones (On Trigger Warnings).

It is, however, important to examine the arguments provided by those advocating for safe policies at colleges in order to better understand why they are harmful. Many safe space advocates cite a nationwide survey conducted across multiple campuses in October 2015 which describes the disparity between critics’ opinions and those of most students. The study revealed that 63 percent of the 800 students questioned supported professors use of trigger warnings to notify students before addressing potentially disturbing content (Almost). A similar 2016 Gallup survey found that 69 percent of students support the implementation of campus policies against “slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups” (Free 12). However, on a fundamental level, the fact that many students support safe policies does not validate or demonstrate the benefits that safe policies can theoretically provide. It is likely that some students feel more comfortable under safe policies, and the high percentages of student support for these policies show that students favor that comfort.

Proponents claim that these numbers can be attributed to the fact that “safe” measures provide an important safety net in an academic setting for students to manage traumatic experiences and can theoretically notify students about information that might “cause them to relive their trauma.” Supporters also believe that critics of safe learning environments disregard those affected by sexual harassment or other traumas and “frame student survivors as weak” (Byron 120). In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro supported this ideology, insisting that traumatized students, can only “embrace uncomfortable learning” and add value to the classroom on the condition that “they are themselves comfortable” (Schapiro). Additionally, advocates claim, anti-safe policies like that of U-Chicago’s can actually accomplish the opposite of their intent because, “instead of fostering academic freedom,” they “could foster mistrust and negatively affect survivors of trauma...” (Pickett). However, as discussed in this paper, an increasing number of respected organizations, successful company executives, and esteemed academics argue the comfort provided by safe policies is harmful to students’ intellect. Additionally, critics have warned that proponents of safe policies, such as many students, would rather have “their views affirmed instead of challenged,” and at the expense of their own academic success (Goldberg 751). These critics maintain that students must learn to “engage with those who disagree, and should understand that not being affirmed is not the same as being ostracized” (752). Additionally, this paper has shown that, while it can be thoughtful of college administrations to issue support of safe policies because of the empathy and sensitivity they potentially provide individual students, they do not necessarily comply with applicable law.

Needless to say, colleges take a great deal into consideration before instituting new policies. For example, in January 2017, University of Maryland President, Wallace Loh, responded to a request made by a group of 25 student organizations, known collectively as “ProtectUMD,” that the university adopt a list of 64 “demands,” including the implementation of safe policies (ProtectUMD). In his response, Loh emphasized that, while dialogue over these issue is of utmost importance, “academic freedom and freedom of expression” are non-negotiable and restrictions on these items are “unlawful…unconstitutional…or unnecessary,” because, “at the University of Maryland, we do not fear the clash of ideas and values” (Loh).

Notably, the University of Maryland follows a policy which embraces constitutional standards while providing substantial sensitivity toward individual students’ emotional needs. As opposed to institutions such as Oberlin, Wesleyan, and Columbia, where speech codes have been considered or introduced, Maryland engages in an alternate approach to address similar issues (Barbash). In 2012, under Loh’s leadership, Maryland launched its’ “Inclusive Language Campaign,” to educate students on the, “impact, origin and context of words”. In introducing this strategy, Maryland explicitly clarified that it was “not encouraging language policing,” essentially outlining the measure as a guideline for politeness rather than a set of regulations (Inclusive). While this policy addresses potential issues of constitutionality by unambiguously protecting free speech, Maryland has also demonstrated caring for the wishes and feelings of individual students. For example, if colleges, like Maryland, are to subscribe to the concepts outlined by educators like Christ and Christakis, and encourage students to grapple with “challenging works and unsettling experiences,” it is critical for administrations to advance the value and availability of student services and resources outside of the classroom, especially for those who suffer from PTSD or other emotionally vulnerable conditions (Morris). The University of Maryland achieves this by providing students with robust individualized mental and emotional health and counseling resources. As a result, Maryland students can benefit from the consideration and protection that safe policies offer, while simultaneously preserving the educational integrity of the university. Perhaps the model exemplified by the University of Maryland is one that could provide American colleges with an equilibrium that allows for constitutionally protected intellectual freedom to exist on campus, while comprehensively addressing the unique needs of individual students.

As has been proven throughout this paper, safe policies threaten the value of students’ education at colleges throughout the United States. Furthermore, this paper has shown that many of these policies possess unconstitutional components. Even so, there is significant student support for many of these policies. At the very least, student supporters of safe policies should be heard. The University of Maryland has proven that it is possible to address these complex and clashing notions. The university recognizes its obligation to maintain educational and constitutional integrity, both of which would be damaged by safe policies. It also understands the importance in acknowledging and supporting students’ emotional needs, which it strives to protect. As has been proven by this paper and displayed by the University of Maryland, while safe policies should not be implemented at colleges on academic and legal grounds, it is still possible to care for the emotional needs and safety of college students in the United States.

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