It’s unfortunate, but no surprise that the world went into a collective panic last week when the University of Chicago released a letter to the class of 2020 outlining the university's stance on freedom of speech. (You can read the letter here: University of Chicago: No Safe Spaces or Trigger Warnings)
In it, Dean of Students, John Ellison, outlined the university’s position on freedom of speech, and reminded students that the freedom to express ideas and discuss opinions is a critical part of the university environment. He further explained that the university does not and will not support “trigger warnings” or “intellectual safe spaces,” but instead encourages students to dialogue over disagreements & attempt to come to a mutual understanding.
Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately his letter flew right in the teeth of the current, watered down & politically correct understanding of “free speech” (which really isn’t freedom of speech, as much as it’s freedom to say what is currently politically correct to say.) Despite the harsh and vocal criticism of his letter, I believe he’s on the right track.
It’s no longer free speech when students are free to shut down a campus or prevent a guest speaker from presenting, simply because he or she espouses a belief different from the majority of students. That’s a sort of mob rule, wherein the majority trample on the rights of everyone else. The Mizzou situation this past year demonstrated just how little the protestors cared about “freedom of expression” when they forcibly prevented an Asian-American photographer from chronicling the protests for ESPN. (And just in case anyone wants to keep arguing that the movement is about protecting minorities from the oppression of the white male, let me remind you that Tim Tai is Asian American. This article from the Atlantic tells the whole story in detail)
Academia finds itself staring down the barrel of a question: In a world where “intellectual safe spaces” have become part of academia, just how long can academia remain truly intellectual?
If colleges are forced to only share one idea, one opinion, one belief, well - to put it bluntly, academia will cease to be academic, and instead become an anemic, politically correct propaganda machine that exists to help students reinforce their preconceived ideas, provided they’re politically correct. (And if that sounds like a good idea, I’d recommend reading “A Brave New World”, by Aldous Huxley.)
Some argue that Dean Ellison is protecting “hate speach”, however I don’t really think that accusation is grounded in reality. Is all speech protected? Certainly not. We have laws regarding libel, truth-in-advertising, threatening the life or well being of another person, and etc. I think it’s fairly clear that Dean Ellison isn’t defending those types of speech, he’s simply telling his students that no one is obligated to agree with them, or their opinions, or even condone of their lifestyle.
This issue is critically important: freedom of speech is a fundamental building block for American society. In his article “Free Expression in Peril”, Professor Geoffrey Stone laid out a clear warning “If today I am permitted to silence those whose views I find distasteful, I have then opened the door to allow others down the road to silence me.”Safe spaces might not be so safe after all.