Free speech and safe spaces don’t need to be enemies

Illustrated by Nate Mulroy

Illustrated by Nate Mulroy

Trigger warnings, safe spaces and free speech are issues that have polarized university campuses across the nation. On Sept. 14, Dean of Students Jerry Price hosted the first Forum on Free Expression and Inclusion to discuss these controversial issues and it was clear that not everyone on this campus agrees on how these issues should be handled.

A forum is the perfect environment to discuss issues as multifaceted and complex as these. Whether trigger warnings, safe spaces and policies regarding free speech are mandated or not by the university, these are decisions that deserve thorough discussion and analysis. It is especially important for discussion to take place prior to an incident like those that have taken place at Kansas State University or the University of Chicago.

For starters, it is important to define what is being discussed. Each of these issues has multiple definitions, and people who support the same side of the safe space debate may have different definitions among themselves. Trigger warnings, generally, are defined as a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, discussion, etc., alerting the participant to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material. This definition is mostly agreed upon.

Defining safe spaces is where it gets a little more complicated, and is exactly why it is important to continue a dialogue regarding their role and place on campus. For some, a safe space is where students can go to discuss difficult issues without fear of judgment or shame. For others, a safe space is the opposite – a place where potentially heavy or troubling topics have no place, and there are a set of guidelines that are enforced in order to maintain an environment where students can take refuge from potential triggers. Both definitions are things that could be beneficial to any university campus, but it is important to make clear to everyone what is being advocated for in a pragmatic and logistical sense and acknowledge that the refuge-based safe space idea could never apply to all of campus.

Safe spaces and triggers are really polarizing issues. We want to acknowledge that we certainly cannot speak for the people advocating for safe spaces, because we do not know the issues they deal with that they may be trying to take refuge from. We’ve written before about how mental health must be a priority on campus, and if trigger warnings and safe spaces being available can help students in need, then they necessitate further discussion. Safe spaces and freedom of ideas don’t have to be chosen one over another. Safe spaces can be implemented without being mandated, punitive or at the cost of free speech.

Price posed this question on his Instagram Sept. 12 prior to hosting the forum:

“At Chapman, I should be able to express whatever opinion I want without being punished. At Chapman, I should not have to tolerate offensive harassing comments. Which of these is true? Can both be true?”

We say, yes, both can be true. As journalists, we are always going to defend our First Amendment constitutional right to free speech. There cannot be censorship on what you can and cannot say. The ability to express any idea is one that must be protected so that we can have discussions like Price’s forum.

But when you cross the line and use your ideas to verbally attack specific groups of people, discipline is needed. Free speech does not mean people have a hall pass to degrade others with hateful speech or threats.

In the words of Jerry Price: “Ideas cannot violate policy — behavior violates policy.”

In other words, the beliefs or ideas you hold cannot be punished, but the manner in which you express them can be if it compromises the rights of others.

We clearly don’t have the solution to the safe space debate, so we’ll see you and your ideas at the second forum next month.

Read about the Forum on Free Expression and Inclusion here.

1 Comment

  • “But when you cross the line and use your ideas to verbally attack specific groups of people, discipline is needed. Free speech does not mean people have a hall pass to degrade others with hateful speech or threats.”

    This is inaccurate and potentially damaging to your argument as a whole. While I have no personal issue with the concepts of ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces’- to assert that one should be disciplined for ‘hateful speech’ is fundamentally against the intent of the First Amendment.

    Here’s an article from the Washington Post that illustrates my point: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/07/no-theres-no-hate-speech-exception-to-the-first-amendment/?utm_term=.170bcfbb8acf

    “In the words of Jerry Price: “Ideas cannot violate policy — behavior violates policy.”
    In other words, the beliefs or ideas you hold cannot be punished, but the manner in which you express them can be if it compromises the rights of others.”

    This is a subtle misinterpretation of Mr. Price’s words. When he says “ideas”, this includes speech. There is a objective difference between expressing ‘hateful’ or unpopular beliefs verbally, and expressing them through actions.

    Obviously, in the cases of personal (face-to-face) threats, defamation, or libel there is still a major grey area. But you make no effort to address this distinction in your article.

    Again, I personally agree with the use of ‘trigger warnings’ and even support certain definitions of ‘safe spaces’- but in order to be taken seriously by those that oppose these ideas, we must be certain that we understand these fundamental elements of our constitution.

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