Safe Spaces: The Paradigm of Free Speech

Claire Ho ‘20

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In recent years, the use of the term “safe space” has increased dramatically. A Duke University report defines a “safe space” as “institutions on college campuses that are devoted to the needs of marginalized groups.” Safe spaces, which are often physical spaces on campuses, can be residential programs, cultural centers, student minority organizations, and certain classes and events. They exist to accommodate and draw attention to non-mainstream debates, often moderated with rules to ensure a controlled and safe discussion of potentially triggering issues.. [1]


Safe spaces tout a variety of benefits, one of which is enabling students of various minority groups to more freely express themselves; these groups include but are not limited to ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious denomination. Those that support safe spaces argue that they allow students to come together and explore common experiences and challenges that they have faced. Thus, in theory, safe spaces would allow students to find common ground, helping each other to cope with their negative experiences, while at the same time restricting offensive or triggering discourse, fostering the development support networks between students to develop, diminishing feelings of isolation and encouraging confidence, growth, and healing. [2]


Supporters also claim that safe spaces allow the voices of minority groups to be heard.For example, in the context of a women’s group, topics of discussion might include sexual assault, and in the context of a racial minority group, might include experiences with discrimination. [3]


A third  benefit that proponents attribute to safe spaces is the creation of a place where students have the freedom to discuss complex issues without judgement; they have opportunities to discuss possibly controversial issues openly and completely. The argument states that through this discourse, students can learn more about–and ultimately help–each other to, for example, as Josh Jacobs ‘19 expresses, “safe spaces will be a great way to relieve stress.” [3]


On the other side of the debate, opponents argue that they restrict oppressive views too much, ultimately restricting the exchange of intellectual ideas at university campuses, where students would ideally be encouraged to explore different subject matter and engage in debates on those topics. [4]


One of the primary arguments against safe spaces is that they allow students with similar views to affirm each others’ statements–guarding themselves against ideas they view as “contrary,” in a sense. The opposition cites the Constitution–more specifically, the First Amendment in its Bill of Rights, which ensures free speech as long it does not poses an immediate threat. It points out that safe spaces, which theoretically would aim to prohibit offensive viewpoints, dampen this speech, creating a sort of chilling effect on free speech. [4]


Secondarily, they argue that safe spaces create an unrealistic environment that fails to prepare students for the real world, where people are unrestricted in expressing their viewpoints, no matter how racist or bigoted. In this vein, opponents argue that safe spaces shelter students. On the contrary, Meghan Jin ‘20 argues that safe spaces are “different for each person and…may take time to find…[but ultimately] deserve and are worth that time” despite potential difficulties in establishing them. [4]


The debate is especially pertinent to college students, many of whom are currently attending universities that may allow or ban the establishment of safe spaces. A recent Gallup poll has found that support for safe spaces is highest among women and Democrats, than African-American students and historically African-American colleges or universities, with Republicans and males demographics being less likely than other demographics to support safe spaces. Given the opinions of different demographics, it becomes clear that any development regarding the allowance of safe spaces will be heavily debated. [5]


Safe spaces are more relevant now than ever, owing to the currently shifting political climate, and their emerging role will be clarified with the definition of the boundaries of free speech–a process that is sure to prove interesting.








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