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The right to offend

| Monday, September 12, 2016

On far too many college campuses, administrations unreasonably restrict student expression to designated “free speech zones.” For decades, these zones have been the subject of great contention among students, faculty members and government officials. This debate has expanded to include terms like “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions” and so-called “safe spaces.” Even today, the issue of free speech on college campuses remains, ironically, highly controversial.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, approximately one in six of the top 400 universities in America have adopted some form of free speech zones. Typically, access to these zones requires pre-registration and approval, and is subject to time and space restraints. Students wishing to exercise their first amendment rights often find themselves banished to these remote areas of campus.

Universities exist to promote higher education through instruction and intellectual discussion. Students should be encouraged to share their views, to challenge others’ ideas and to reassess their own preconceptions. By restricting free speech to specific areas of campus, universities are significantly reducing the ability of students to learn from one another and engage in meaningful discussions about contemporary issues.

Recently, free speech zones have been eclipsed by a revival of “safe spaces.” These spaces prohibit anyone from sharing ideas that others may find offensive. The concept has garnered support among many college students, some of whom believe these spaces will help protect marginalized groups.

Although the movement consists overwhelmingly of liberal-leaning students, a number of prominent Democrats have criticized “safe spaces.” Even President Obama has distanced himself from the issue, declaring: “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views.”

Yet despite significant criticism, the movement has continued to gain traction on many college campuses. Last year, students at the University of Missouri received national attention after creating a “safe space” outdoors on a public quad. The situation quickly became tense when students began shoving reporters and arguing with bystanders. One woman, Professor Melissa Click, threatened a student photographer and was later charged with third-degree assault.

Yale received similar national attention following a bizarre controversy over Halloween costumes. The media highlighted a video of a seemingly hysterical young woman, yelling at a professor for failing to create a “safe space.” The Yale controversy shows us that even the nation’s most prestigious universities are not immune from the resurgence of “safe space” advocates.

“Safe spaces” are tangible manifestations of the notion, increasingly popular among Millennials, that schools should protect students from uncomfortable and divisive ideas. However, while shielding vulnerable young adults from opposing viewpoints may seem like as good idea, it is irreparably damaging to students’ education. Intellectual diversity — that is, the diversity of ideas — is integral to academia. Students don’t need to be protected, they need to be challenged, exposed to new ideas, and willing to engage in rational debate.

Further, once you designate some spaces as “safe,” you imply that the rest are somehow “unsafe.” This demonstrates the truly damaging nature of “safe space” ideology. Disagreement, even vehement debate, does not make a space unsafe. A free and open exchange of differing views is the healthy and natural product of any intellectual environment.

Notre Dame seems to recognize the value of free speech and intellectual diversity in education. Although it is a private institution, and thus not legally required to protect free speech, the University offers students a great deal of freedom. We are free to host speakers of our choosing, distribute literature, organize peaceful demonstrations and utilize the resources of the Student Activities Office. Notre Dame promises that “students and student organizations are free to examine and to discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately.”

Even so, the pervasive culture of political correctness is an ever-pressing concern, even at more conservative institutions like Notre Dame. The University prohibits the use of resources to “post, view, store or send obscene, pornographic, sexually explicit or offensive material.” But what is the standard in determining what is and is not “offensive?” Should we not have the right to openly express our views, even if others may be offended? Can free speech truly be considered free at all if it does not extend to the expression of potentially offensive ideas?

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Western education today is that freedom of speech is no longer a right that students can take for granted. Increasingly, even in America, student expression has been forced to compete with political correctness, “safe spaces,” “free speech zones” and a flurry of other so-called “progressive” idiocies. We must stop this indulgence in self-infantilization and engage in open and meaningful political discourse. We must defend not only the right to be offended, but the right to offend.

Liam Stewart is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Letters, majoring in political science. Liam was born and raised in the beautiful Irish city of Dublin, although he has been proud to call Seattle home for the past six years. He enjoys country music, hardback books and binge-watching TV shows. He can be reached at lstewar4@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Liam Stewart

Liam Stewart is a Sophomore in the College of Arts and Letters, majoring in political science. Liam was born and raised in the beautiful Irish city of Dublin, although he has been proud to call Seattle home for the past six years. He enjoys country music, hardback books and binge-watching TV shows. He can be reached at lstewar4@nd.edu

Contact Liam
  • João Pedro Santos
  • Daniel Esparza

    While I admire your devotion to this notion of open exchange of ideas, there’s some nuance involved in the formation of safe spaces and what is considered “unsafe.”

    First off, the intention of these spaces is to provide meaningful discourse of, for example, one’s identity where it cannot be found elsewhere. My first-year common room was a terrible place to hold discussions about identity, and a hostile one should anyone decide to come clean about their personal issues surrounding it. It’s with your understanding that while someone would be free to come out of the closet in this space, they should relish their 1st amendment rights, even if they get shunned, belittled, or harassed as a result of revealing an aspect of themself that they are not in control of.

    Keep in mind that coming out is not an *opinion.* It is not an *opposing viewpoint* even if reactionaries want it to be. Someone questioning their sexuality does not need to be debated to have a better understanding of that trait. This idea only comes off as political or “progressive” because straight people are never seriously questioned about their sexuality in public, nor is their existence discounted, nor do they have to hide their public displays of affection, nor are they harassed or beaten for it, nor does the media portray straight relationships as taboo, etc.

    “…once you designate some spaces as ‘safe,’ you imply that the rest are somehow ‘unsafe.'” You almost had it there, think about why someone would feel unsafe.

    Secondly, there’s this idea that we’ve overstepped on some authoritarianism when we step in to restrict harmful attitudes and behaviors. As I mention briefly in this article (http://ndsmcobserver.com/2016/03/free-speech-idealisitic/), hierarchy does not just exist on what is written in law or who is armed. People can censor each other, even unknowingly, when social stratification exists, and it is more likely to occur when the discussion at hand questions the current status quo. To truly have a place of “free speech,” society would have to rid itself of social stratification. That includes, but is not limited to, race, gender, and class.

    Lastly I should probably address the liberal (when I say ‘liberal,’ I mean everyone from social democrat to republican) notion of defending speech even if it’s harmful. It is my belief that if someone openly advocates harm against others, particularly when it’s unwarranted or against marginalized people, that it is in society’s best interest to silence that behavior. We “leftists” do not believe that there’s anything symbolically beautiful about allowing that type of behavior to continue. “Censoring” them in that case is for the purposeful and pragmatic action of protecting the people they wish harm upon, from harm.