The right to offend
Liam Stewart | 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 [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.