By the time a trend on college campuses drifts over the ivy-clad perimeter walls out here into the ‘real’ world, you can be sure that the essence has been distorted sufficiently that intelligent assessment and comment is impossible. But that never stops anyone, and it certainly isn’t going to stop me.

Apparently a nefarious new threat to free speech is incubating or already hatched attempting to protect some student groups from speech they would rather not experience. And also apparently, this threat has jumped the bounds of what even many people inclined to be sympathetic regard as reasonable.

Examples of extreme sensitivity have been cited, and these examples certainly suggest a bit of overkill, (not that one should necessarily trust extreme examples to be representative). But in any case, I’d like to take issue with how this issue is being defined.

The case against the safe space movement usually takes the form of “America, and the college campus especially should be a place where all ideas are welcome, and that people need to be exposed to thoughts that challenge them and make them uncomfortable.” Sounds good! Also sounds like something I don’t recognize.

I have never experienced a place, including college, where all thoughts or statements were welcome, or considered acceptable. And as far as challenging people and making them uncomfortable, yes college is a good place for that, but the challenging is ALWAYS circumscribed in one way or another. Anyone who has politely but pointedly challenged a professor on a key classroom assertion and been punished for in their grade knows what I’m talking about.

This debate is not really about pure free speech. No argument ever is. It’s about speech norms and who gets to set them. I think a coherent argument can be made that since colleges are institutions, the institutional authorities rather than the students ought to get to set them. That’s the way institutions work. But it’s a very different argument than free speech, if I may be so unsafe as to say.


(Tom Toles)