In most of my introductory lectures where I teach, after going through the syllabus and other requisite first-day-of-class matters, I often say a variant of the following:
By the way, if I say something during this class that offends your belief system, or contradicts ideas you believe to be true, or otherwise makes you uncomfortable, well, I really don’t give a s**t. You’re at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. If your core beliefs haven’t been challenged at least once during your time here, then you’re not doing it right.
I bring this up because Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New York Times about
how college has changed since she was an undergrad “safe spaces” on campus rocketed around my social media platforms Sunday. There was almost unanimous support for Shulevitz’s view that something is seriously amiss on college campuses:
Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.
Some people trace safe spaces back to the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s, others to the gay and lesbian movement of the early 1990s. In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity. As long as all parties consent to such restrictions, these little islands of self-restraint seem like a perfectly fine idea.
But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer [emphasis added].
That bolded section is crucial for Shulevitz’s argument. If it turns out that safe spaces are really just physical locations where rape victims can go for emotional support, then this isn’t a free speech issue. And the more closely one examines Shulevitz’s anecdotes, the murkier things get.
For example, she discusses the kerfuffle involving a Northwestern University professor who warned about the “sexual paranoia” plaguing college campuses. After a student protest demanding the administration do something, university president Morton Schapiro wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he… explained why he wasn’t going to take any action whatsoever.
So, in other words, Kipnis exercised her right to free speech, students exercised their right to same, and so did the president of the university. And no one got fired. That sounds to me like a good outcome.
Now to be fair, Shulevitz also offers anecdotes in her essay that I find disturbing. The problem is that I’d like to see a more systematic effort to catalog these cases and infer some trends. There is an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E.) that pays close attention to these kinds of cases, but a scan of its Web site revealed no longitudinal data either.
So Shulevitz offers a lot of stories in her essay, but no statistics to substantiate her claims. Even at the case study level, sometimes the instances of campus speech restrictions look muddier the closer one looks.
Consider, for example, a case that blew up last week due to Katie J.M. Baker’s BuzzFeed story:
Reed College, a small liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, attracts students who want to speak their mind.
But when Jeremiah True wouldn’t stop talking about his controversial opinions on sexual assault in his required freshman humanities course, his professor banned him from the discussion segment of the class for the remainder of the semester.
The 19-year-old told BuzzFeed News that his professor, Pancho Savery, warned him repeatedly that his views made his classmates uncomfortable before he told him in a March 14 email that he was no longer welcome to participate in the “conference” section of his Humanities 110 lecture-seminar class.
“Please know that this was a difficult decision for me to make and one that I have never made before; nevertheless, in light of the serious stress you have caused your classmates, I feel that I have no other choice,” Savery wrote in the email, obtained by BuzzFeed News.
If you read further, it seems pretty damning for Reed. There are student quotes about how True made them feel uncomfortable. One of the points that True raised was questioning the “one in five college women are raped” statistic, which is a statistic that merits some serious interrogation. F.I.R.E. is on the case, arguing that banning True from the conference “is likely to have a chilling effect on Reed students, who may choose not to share controversial opinions rather than risk punishment.”
F.I.R.E. is right to have qualms, but as this case has unfolded, it’s also gotten murkier. The Reed College Quest’s Will Jones and Danielle Juncal have some details that paint True’s interaction with the rest of the conference in a somewhat different light:
Maude-Griffin says that True “began the class abruptly and loudly in an angry tone, reading the Honor Principle stating how no student should face a hostile environment, and demanding an apology of only female members of the class despite the equally strong reaction by the male ones.”
That sounds like someone using the exact same logic that Shulevitz criticizes in her essay to defend their point of view.
In a follow-up, Reason’s Robby Soave also notes that this doesn’t appear to be as simple as restricting True’s speech:
Savery is known for being an ardent defender of free speech, which makes his apparent decision to remove True from class all the more baffling….
I was curious about the context of True’s remarks. While students should be able to speak up about controversial subjects, they aren’t allowed to hijack classroom conversations and steer them wildly off track. If True was rowdy, interrupted other students, or veered off topic, that would be another matter.
Savery declined comment to BuzzFeed, but I was able to reach him via email. He confirmed that he was a “strong believer in the First Amendment,” and maintained that the student’s views were not the issue.
“He was not banned because of what he said but because of a series of disruptive behaviors,” Savery told Reason.
And here we get to the nub of the problem. I’ve led a fair number of undergraduate and graduate seminars in my day. If a student shares a politically unpopular viewpoint, then as the seminar leader it’s often my job to defend that position. In the absence of such views, I will very often articulate such views as a means of provoking the conversation.
That said, if any student tries to monopolize or repeatedly hijack the conversation, it’s a serious pedagogical problem. A seminar leader has to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to articulate their views, and critique others in the room. Playing intellectual traffic cop is difficult, but it’s made even more difficult if one person just honks their horn endlessly without stopping. And to play this metaphor out, when students do nothing but honk their own horn, they tend to drown out others trying to communicate with them.
In the classroom at least, simply averring the free speech should never be restricted is facile but wrong. There’s only so much time in a seminar and when one person is speaking, the others need to listen. And if True stopped listening, then that’s a problem.
I’ve taught for more than 20 years, and I’ve never had to kick out a student for disruptive behavior. But I don’t know if I’ve ever had a student like Jeremiah True. Both Reason’s Soave and Inside Higher Ed’s Kaitlin Mulhere tried to contact him to get his side of the story. True’s response to both of them them bolsters the “disruptive behavior” thesis. According to Mulhere:
True declined to be interviewed Thursday. When contacted via e-mail, he responded that he would only answer questions if the first word in the article was [n****]. Inside Higher Ed refused to make such a commitment, and he then declined to talk.
Let me be clear here: I’m not saying that Shulevitz’s concerns are groundless or unwarranted. When college campuses cancel invited speakers because of the safe space logic, it does a disservice to the educational mission.
I’m not even saying that the case at Reed doesn’t warrant further inquiry. But this case also suggests that some of these stories are not as simple as first reported. And as Schapiro noted in his op-ed:
[A]ny time your actions supersede a defining national tenet such as free speech, you better be sure you are making the right call. Whatever the decision, critics will come out in force—with social media leading the way and making a trying situation even more challenging.