“Safe Spaces” and Freedom of Expression

“Safe Spaces” and Freedom of Expression

Is the right to freedom of speech severely threatened in the United States, homeland by definition to such freedom of expression?

The results of a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center seem to affirm so. The new generations, however, do not seem to have a good eye for critical speech and harsh debate, preferring rather safe spaces imbued with a politically correct dialectic.

Let’s start from the beginning. Pew’s research reported very interesting data on American public opinion about freedom of speech. First of all, a solid 71% of Americans believe that it must be permissible to freely express without State’ censorship . Then 77% even think that they should always be allowed to freely express their own thoughts, even if they are offensive and disrespectful of others’ beliefs.

Freedom before anything else. Furthermore, 67% of Americans believe that people should be able to publically express opinions that are even offensive to minorities. The picture is then quite clear: Americans are not willing to renounce their beloved freedom of speech.

This finding strongly contrasts with the reality of what is happening on the main college campuses throughout the country. Any offensive or disrespectful language to one’s neighbor is increasingly met with negativity. This has occurred in various conferences and classes where pressure from students led the university administration to cancel some events or give public apologies. In schools such as the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and even in the Ivy League schools of Columbia, Yale, Princeton and Harvard, the request to “prohibit offenses” is quite extensive. For example, people have been forbidden to wear certain Halloween costumes or repeat the words of the rapper “Big Sean” for his misogynistic lyrics. Then a screening of the film Stonewall was blocked for an erroneous vision of African Americans in the US history. More and more students are requesting “safe spaces” where people can carry on in daily life without being subject to attacks or criticisms that could hurt their feelings.

In reaction to the growing censorship climate among students, the president of the University of Chicago charged a group of experts to prepare a document to be published in 2015. This document followed in the same vein as other campaigns in the university, especially the 1967 Kalven Report, which favored freedom of speech. During 2015, other universities joined the U. Chicago statement. The FIRE campaign, in defense of civil rights, worked up an annual document on the restriction of freedom in another 400 universities.

Hence the ultimate paradox of American democratic society: on one hand, freedom of speech as an indispensable value, regardless of whether or not expressions are violent or incite hatred. On the other hand, the new generation‑ best represented on college campuses- requesting defensive safe spaces, where any seemingly offensive expression is banned.

We must recall that the university has always been the natural home of debate and free thought. In the seventies, it was even home to cultural battles, such as the defense of civil rights and ideological claims including sexual liberation. The problem was clearly not a verbal clash. Questions regarding the conquest of other rights demanded that people not get too fussy or dirty their hands in the name of democracy, even in accessible debates.

Are these simple generational contrasts, or contradictions within a society that has lost its path and fails to find a fair balance in major civil debates? How can we find the compass? Freedom of expression is not only a formal freedom or a cultural totem. It’s meant to be reflected upon and re-grounded continually. It is not a given fact that lies there motionless, waiting for external appropriation. It is meant to be engaged by the individual and society at large. It must be conquered in each person and in every generation.