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Do Safe Spaces in Academia Encourage or Curtail Free Speech?

By Chaya Benyamin
 getty /Chris Hondros / Staff
*updated 2022
Safe spaces: A designated space where marginalized individuals can commune with other likeminded individuals, and criticism and derogatory language are prohibited. In recent years, these spaces have gained more prevalence in the realm of academia and in the media, with some contending that safe spaces model open societies at their best, and others calling them death-zones for free speech. So, do safe spaces engender a better learning environment, or are they helping to destroy one that has proven to be pretty great?
Here are three arguments in favor of safe spaces, and three arguments against them.


Arguments for safe spaces


Safe spaces promote freedom of expression for marginalized groups

The term “safe spaces” traces back to the 1960s, when activist Moira Kenney used the term in reference to Los Angeles gay bars. In these bars, gays could seek refuge from both systematic oppression – in the form of harsh anti-sodomy laws – and societal repression, in which gays were stigmatized and regular victims of violence. The term for these havens, where one could freely express personal or political preferences, was then broadly applied to other movements. Today’s safe spaces on university campuses, like cultural centers, carry this tradition forward, inviting students, especially minority students, to enjoy a space where phobias and biases are checked at the door.


Safe spaces make students feel safe and ready to learn

Recent studies have pointed to correlations between a lack of safe spaces on campuses and psychological discomfort, the kind that is likely to impede learning. Arguably, classrooms are not an ideal place to negotiate one’s traumas. Safe spaces, both physical and intellectual, provide a low-pressure environment to do so, without drawing attention away from the lecturer or discussion. They have become increasingly important for students’ mental health. One sufferer of post-partum depression notes that safe spaces foster trust between marginalized and/or traumatized students with their schools, helping them to learn. Surprisingly, conservative and religious students have benefitted from these spaces, with professors at conservative colleges creating intellectual safe spaces through the use of trigger warnings that inform students when provocative material will be discussed.


Free speech and safe spaces are not mutually exclusive

Safe spaces facilitate meaningful conversations by helping students gain the skills to communicate effectively with people of different backgrounds. Contrary to the perception that safe spaces stifle free speech, they encourage participation through acceptance, ensuring that those with unpopular opinions won’t be drowned out by a “noisy majority.” Indeed, most universities seem unwilling to undertake serious consideration of these spaces at all: Most university educators do not regularly use trigger warnings, and most believe that such intellectual safe spaces will have a negative effect on education. This belies the truth in space safe advocates’ claims that their views are, in fact, marginalized. Safe spaces, which were created to counteract this, are therefore as legitimate a learning space as any other.

Arguments against safe spaces 


Safe spaces spill over to all spaces on campus, compromising free speech

Some critics argue that declaring one space “safe” inherently implies that all other spaces are unsafe, and therefore require reform. Professors decry attitudes that place respect for identity above all else and thereby stifle exploration of issues parallel to these identities. In extreme cases, students have sought to police language in all campus spaces, demanding punishment for anyone who causes offense to another student on the basis of gender or race (either knowingly or innocently). In such environments, students and professors are unlikely to put forth any viewpoints that might make them appear oppositional to anything at all.


Safe spaces dull students’ abilities to argue effectively

Safe spaces elevate feelings above intellectual discovery. An article in Everyday Feminism, which advocates for safe spaces, outlines the a-intellectual approach upheld in safe spaces: “Safe spaces don’t tolerate certain (oppressive) views, and they value safety over debate.” In these spaces, uncomfortable subjects are considered only from the standpoint of subjective reactions they produce. Furthermore, the invective used to restrict criticism of others’ ideas within safe spaces can halt discussions altogether. How can students be expected to grasp and practice the art of reasoned argument in such conditions? After all, isn’t college meant to be an opportunity to be exposed to diverse viewpoints and expand one’s life perspective? Safe spaces may unintentionally close rather than open students’ minds.


Safe spaces are divisive

Safe spaces encourage identity politics and segregation. While one might argue that it’s impossible to accommodate every marginalized contingency on campus with its own safe space, there is no lack of universities who are trying. The result is dozens of interest groups vying for physical space on campus.  For example, students at a university in New York demand one floor of the student union for black students, and another floor for LBGT students, symbolically obliterating the idea of camaraderie with their non-black, non-queer counterparts. These notions would be dismissed as patently racist were a white supremacist group to demand any part of a public space for the particular use of whites. Proclaiming that one’s particular group must be honored with a distinct physical space ultimately undermines a hallmark of most universities that contributes greatly to campus safety – broad respect for diversity.


The Bottom Line: Safe spaces are an appeal for greater acknowledgment of diversity, but inclusion should not come at the price of suppression of other voices. What do you think? What kind of learning environments do safe spaces create?

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