Safe Spaces and Speech: A Wordless Battle

When speech is stifled, so is the very essence of America, said Wes Baker, distinguished professor of communications at Cedarville.

“Our political system is based on the whole idea that we allow all kinds of things to be said,” said Baker, who teaches media law and ethics classes. “We have a very high standard in the United States to protect speech of all kinds.”

College is a place at which free speech should flourish and all ideas able to be expressed, he said.

“That’s the purpose of college. You’re transitioning from teenagers to adulthood. You’re moving from a safe environment in your community and in your family into the world where you’re going to be faced with all kinds of challenges, and that’s what college is for,” he said. “It’s part of that transition.”

Safe spaces

However, there’s been a recent surge in demanding that “safe spaces” be created on college campuses across the country. According to The Atlantic, safe spaces are those that shelter students from ideas and speech that may offend or result in discomfort for students.

“To suggest that you have to have these safe spaces where you’re protected from things that you might disagree with is the complete opposite of what a university is supposed to be doing,” Baker said.

College students across the country have gained national attention this fall for their cries for greater inclusivity, diversity and safe spaces on their campuses. Yale University, Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna College and The University of Missouri (Mizzou), among others, found themselves in the national spotlight in early November when student groups began leading protests on their respective campuses. Additional universities continue to make the list as the fall semester wraps up.

Peter Bonilla, Individual Rights Defense program director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said the student protesters have shown the right to free speech at its finest.

“There’s no question that a lot of the students at these universities were unhappy with the status quo, as they saw it, and they exercised their right to the free expression to protest the status quo and advocate for change,” Bonilla said. “There have been unfortunate episodes where free speech is concerned, but in a lot of ways, I think that these protests can be seen as free speech kind of working at its finest, doing what it needs to do, which is letting students collect their voices – find a collective voice, advocate for change, and make themselves heard to the administration.”

Perhaps Mizzou caught the most attention with its football team’s near strike, one student’s hunger strike, and the resignations of the university system’s president and campus chancellor. Videos showing the suppression of the media at the Columbia, Missouri, campus also went viral.

Students at Mizzou protested the university’s discrimination of all ethnic minorities and demanded increased racial awareness, a reformed curriculum and the president’s resignation, CNN said. Students at Yale and other colleges followed suit. According to higher education watchdog news site Campus Reform, the list of 19 demands from Yale students includes more funding for cultural centers, increased health care for students, renamed buildings and implementing a bias reporting system.

Campus Reform reported that, as a result of the protests, the Mizzou Police Department asked students via email to report “incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions” by immediately calling the police and taking a photo of the harming individual if possible.

Stifling speech

Speech codes, such as that imposed at Mizzou, are dangerous, Baker said.

“In many countries in the world right now, Canada being one of them – our next-door neighbor to the north – there are hate speech codes where people can actually be prosecuted for statements that they’re making,” he said. “There’s no more chilling effect than that. You want to shut down discussion? Well, that’s the way to do it.”

Some of these statements, called “microaggressions,” correspond with students’ pleas for safe spaces.

Writing for The Atlantic, Greg Lukianof and Jonathan Haidt define microaggressions as “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” For example, Lukianof and Haidt said asking an Asian American or Latino American, “Where were you born?” is off-limits according to some campus policies, as is stating “America is the land of opportunity.”

In the classroom, statements known as “trigger warnings” are increasingly being used to warn students of what may be perceived as sensitive content.

“Trigger warnings,” Lukianof and Haidt said, are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.”

Bonilla said trigger warnings are nothing new and are not controversial at first glance. He said the trigger warnings of today stem from online message boards whose participants were survivors of sexual assault or were recovering from eating disorders.

“What was discussed in those settings could be very graphic or disturbing,” Bonilla said. “It functioned both as a warning to potential participants that the discussion frequently got difficult and disturbing, perhaps ‘triggering,’ for people who had suffered those kinds of traumas. And it also gave the participants a little bit of cover so that they could be frank, and they could go into graphic detail and know that this was kind of a safe space to do that.”

But in the past few years, trigger warnings have moved away from their original intent, Bonilla said. There are now calls for warnings on works of classic literature, such as “The Great Gatsby” and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” he said.

Baker said he believes trigger warnings should be used in some contexts, such as prefacing a clip of a graphic video, since individuals have an ethical obligation to minimize harm. But he said the current overuse of trigger warnings doesn’t help students in the long run.

“As a result of these types of movements, professors are feeling there are topics they can’t address in class when they need to for their students to be exposed to it and be able to discuss it and actually have to deal with those things once they graduate,” Baker said. “You’re denying what life is going to be like, so how are you preparing these kids to go out into the real world when they’re so isolated from anything that they might find upsetting?”

Sticks and stones (and words, too) may break your bones

Erica Baum, a junior government and politics and linguistics double major at the University of Maryland, said while her campus hasn’t seen any major protests recently, there’s no shortage of talk about trigger warnings and microaggressions.

“Microaggressions, that’s just accepted. It’s a real thing, according to everybody. My professors talk about microaggressions all the time. As far as triggers (warnings), same thing as that. There’s not really any dissent to it,” Baum said. “I don’t think professors should cater to (students). If (students are) truly disturbed by something – like I can understand cases of rape and stuff – they shouldn’t be making a federal case out of it. They should talk to the professor quietly and do what they have to do, but they shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

Baum said she only recently heard the term “safe spaces,” but she said the students’ demands and cries of being offended are childish.

“It just seems that everybody is always offended by everything,” she said.

The idea of microaggressions and trigger warnings have led to a new movement where speech is not just offensive but harmful, Bonilla said.

“A lot of that criticism now is not in terms of the (offense) caused by the expression but the argument that the expression itself and the people who generate that expression, that they in themselves create a physical danger on campus for other students,” he said.

But while words themselves cannot physically harm students, today’s college students are presumed to be fragile, Lukianof and Haidt wrote in The Atlantic. According to the magazine’s September 2015 piece “The Coddling of the American Mind,” emotions are at the forefront of this movement, “elevating the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.”

But since this movement for inclusivity, diversity and safe spaces is based upon emotion, Baker said it’s difficult to have a rational debate about such issues.

“How can you argue with someone’s emotions?” he said. “It almost becomes something that you can’t discuss or debate, because who are you to challenge how someone feels about something?”

In a November 2015 article for Forbes, Neil Howe said this movement is a generational shift and a way of life not something to be shamed.

“Where Boomers once sought to promote progressive values, Millennials want to minimize hurt feelings. Where Gen Xers once touted resilience and grit, Millennials tout tolerance and inclusiveness,” Howe wrote. “Their crusades for emotional security in the classroom are a symptom of the much bigger movement underway to push the culture at large in a kinder, gentler direction.”


Bonilla said the current shift toward presuming sensitivity in students has gained attention, because students are demanding that administration and faculty members take action.

“I think maybe why it’s gotten more attention lately is that we’re seeing in a lot of cases people going one step past the simple matter of bringing the fact of microaggressions to their university’s attention. But then from there, demanding that universities take corrective action, whether in the form of sensitivity training or punishment of one kind or another,” Bonilla said. “And that’s something that when that happens, a teachable moment gets lost, and it becomes potentially a very serious issue of free speech or academic freedom being imperiled.”

Bonilla said the limits on free speech are about more than race. Campuses have amped up their calls for trigger warnings in the classroom, he said, which causes faculty to not only fear offending their students, but also to fear being second-guessed by members of the administration.

“We’re seeing an increasing tendency to self-(censor) by faculty. And that is something that can pretty seriously affect a student’s education,” Bonilla said. “I think the ability of faculty to teach – the freedom of faculty to teach – is directly tied to a student’s freedom to learn. When professors don’t feel safe to explore difficult topics and perhaps expose students to difficult material and controversial opinions, then I think students definitely aren’t safe doing that.”

Free speech for private institutions, Christians

“Microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and protests may not be in Cedarville’s vocabulary. In fact, the first amendment guaranteeing free speech doesn’t apply to private institutions. However, free speech is still something to be valued at a private institution, Baker said.

“While we’re not under any legal requirement for the first amendment to require openness in discussion – the first amendment doesn’t apply to a private school – nonetheless there’s a value there that you’re trying to promote, and that value is that you want to discuss things freely and openly,” he said.

At a private university, like Cedarville, limits on speech are treated like a contract. If students are told of the limits before attending the university, their attendance signifies their consent to limited expression.

Baker said a commitment to valuing free speech is something for which religious dissenters – the people whose worldview doesn’t line up with that of society – have argued for hundreds of years.

“The whole notion of freedom of expression has been promoted most frequently by people who are on the fringe of society, the people who have the less acceptable viewpoints, who are saying, ‘We have a right to be heard.’ And that’s our tradition,” Baker said.

Baker said that by supporting any limits on speech, individuals are actually stifling their own speech.

“You protect speech that you actually yourself hate, but you do it, for one thing, because you want the freedom to participate, and if you’re denying it to them, they can deny it to you,” Baker said.

He said protecting the speech of all religious groups – be it Muslims, pagans, Christians, or others – is important, because truth is found when multiple viewpoints are presented.

“Through this diversity of views that are presented, ideas emerge from that. Truth emerges from that point. And it’s like (John) Milton says, ‘I don’t want – in the attempt to be the protector of Christianity – to actually be cutting it off,’” said Baker, citing the seventeenth-century English poet and crusader of free speech.

Baker said Christian students at public institutions have faced uncomfortable circumstances, like those that student protesters are now demanding end, for decades.

“Think of how much discussion there is on preparing Christian young people to go to a university, knowing that their beliefs are going to be challenged. But we’ve never had this kind of thing where we’ve said, ‘Oh, find a safe room.’ Instead we’ve said, ‘Here are the arguments you’re going to be presented with, here are the answers to help you deal with that,’” Baker said. “It really is remarkable to me that you have this group come along and that’s not their response.”

Baker said there has been a lot of pushback from both conservatives and liberals to the protests this fall.

But no one has an answer for how much longer public institutions will hover in the spotlight as students list their demands. Baum, a student at a public university, said she hopes the student protests don’t last forever.

“I think it’s a fad, but I think it’s a fad that’s going to spread before it goes away,” she said. “Or at least I hope it’s a fad, because I really hope people don’t stay this childish forever.”

Visit to read the demands of student protesters. As of Dec. 1, students at more than 65 campuses have filed demands to end racism on campus.

Anna Dembowski is a senior journalism major and editor-in-chief for Cedars. She is learning to love coffee, spontaneity and Twitter. Follow her at @annabbowskers.

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