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Improving free speech at Notre Dame

| Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This past week, I finished my thesis on free speech on university campuses. When I started thinking about my topic, it was mainly focused on theoretical arguments about free speech. I realized, however, that I wanted the project to have some practical application. And thus, my thesis concluded with a set of recommendations for free speech policies that Notre Dame should pursue, a few of which I will outline below.

Safe spaces

Much of my project consists of arguing for protecting speech on campus. Amidst this, I believe that there should be safe spaces on campus, which many think run counter to the idea of “protecting speech.” When used judiciously and correctly, however, safe spaces do not restrict speech in a significant way.

The constant push against safe spaces is based on the fact that safe spaces insulate individuals from arguments they may differ from or be offended by. And that is true. At Notre Dame, however, it is the responsibility of the institution to both promote freedom of expression and ensure that students are in an environment that allows them to take full advantage of the university experience. Notre Dame, for the most part, promotes free expression on campus (for one example, look at the Open Speaker Policy). A safe space does not hinder this free expression; it merely provides a place where students can go if they do not want to engage in dialogue. When used right, the university itself does not promote a specific ideal within a safe space — it just makes the safe space a place where difficult arguments are not pursued. For one to encounter opposing viewpoints, one does not have to be subject to those viewpoints at every time, in every place, regardless of whether or not they want to. Importantly, however, safe spaces should be implemented with a caveat: they are only to be used if students temporarily want to retract from discussion, not as a way for students to fully and completely insulate themselves from difficult opinions.

Trigger warnings

Surprisingly, Notre Dame has no official policy on trigger warnings, which is a hot-button issue around the country. Similar to my recommended policy on safe spaces, the Notre Dame policy towards trigger warnings should be a restrained adoption.

Trigger warnings do have a vital use. Certain writings can actually trigger traumatic events and have a negative mental or even physical impact on individuals. Far too often, however, trigger warnings are used to protect students from offensive or difficult topics. Because of this, Notre Dame should consult with psychological experts to create a trigger warning policy that is centered on creating warnings where real trauma is actually triggered (which, admittedly, I have not done and thus cannot specify when this happens). Trigger warnings can protect students, but must protect students from psychological trauma, not difficult topics.

Discrimination harassment policy

One of my main recommendations was an amended discrimination harassment policy on campus. According to the current version of the policy, one can be subject to community standards repercussions if they make derogatory comments or insults at individuals or groups, or if they display or circulate written materials or pictures that are offensive or degrading.

As it is written, the policy is far too broad and chills speech on campus. Certain political groups on campus could feel like they would be punished for promoting a political view that others are offended by, or individuals may fear that their political opinions would be taken as derogatory by others. Because of this, some may not speak their mind out of fear of punishment, limiting freedom of expression on campus.

The policy must be written much more narrowly. “Discriminatory harassment” could be restricted to acts such as threatening language and direct verbal abuse. In writing the policy, the university must firstly define what is not allowed so that students know exactly what could be subject to community standards review. Then, Notre Dame must also restrain the policy to ensure that political opinions are not silenced because some could receive others’ opinions as offensive.

In addition to these three broad recommendations, I believe that Notre Dame should both make some subtle changes and also continue some actions that it has taken. Obviously, I cannot write about all of them here.

If you would like to discuss, trash or praise my views (or if would like a copy of my thesis) please feel free to email me at njoseph2@nd.edu.

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