The independent news organization of Duke University

Exploring safe spaces and freedom

Yesterday, we published an editorial in which we stressed the necessary role of safe spaces on college campuses. The editorial was written in response to ongoing discussions about a University of Chicago dean’s controversial letter to freshmen, in which he denigrated safe spaces, declaring them inconsistent with the ideals of academic freedom. As Duke establishes the Sanford Safe Space and expands the Center for Multicultural Affairs into the Bryan Center, we find it imperative to delve into the spirit of Dean Ellison’s letter, explore the context that led to its issuance, critique its wording and argue against the false dichotomy it presents.

Dean Ellison’s letter is best understood with a background story concerning recent events at the University of Chicago. Last February, Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, was invited to speak at the university’s Institute of Politics about her strategies for combating gang violence and her thoughts on the upcoming election. During Alvarez’s lecture, protesters, upset over her alleged failure to hold Chicago police accountable for racial abuses, chanted outside the event space, rendering her speech inaudible. Alvarez had to leave twenty minutes into the program due to safety concerns. To be sure, the UChicago protesters’ actions were inappropriate. The form of disruptive civil disobedience they partook in had little to do with keeping themselves “safe” and ruined chances for productive dialogue while depriving other students of a due opportunity. We believe, however, that Dean Ellison, when he conflated the protesters’ civil disobedience with the establishment of safe spaces, made an intellectually weak straw man argument.

Safe spaces are not synonymous with a “retreat from ideas and perspectives” that might prove at odds with a student’s own beliefs; nor do they realistically threaten the academic liberty of others. A safe space, in its true definition, cannot be used to force professors to remove certain parts of the curriculum; a safe space cannot silence others’ opposing views; used properly, a safe space should not seriously affect anyone outside of persons feeling unsafe. Safe spaces merely ask that students refrain from belting out mean-spirited comments and engaging in hateful actions, exercising the discretion that they already show in the classroom and other social spheres. All students should freely share their beliefs and perspectives. Safe spaces do not take away from their ability to do so. Rather, they simply ask that students embrace the maxim of “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.”

In his letter to freshmen, Dean Ellison should have better defined exactly what kind of safe spaces he meant to deter the establishment of, rather than trivializing all safe spaces. Safe spaces and academic freedom are not mutually exclusive entities or dichotomous. We oppose the appropriation of buzzwords like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to define actions which rational students already find inexcusable. Dean Ellison grouped all safe spaces into a realm of interference and disruption, which is simply unfair. He would have done better to pen a letter that avoided the use of demeaning language and expressed that academic freedom can go hand-in-hand with the decency demanded by safe spaces. While safe spaces, like anything, can be abused, when used properly, they can easily co-exist with full academic freedom.

It is impossible to know everyone’s struggles. As such, it is best to treat all with respect, avoiding needlessly offensive remarks. That is all that safe spaces demand: no restriction on academic freedom—just common decency.


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