It’s hard to argue against the idea of safe spaces.
Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit focused on helping teenagers make informed decisions about sex, defines them as places “where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.” By definition, they are supposed to promote inclusion, encourage respect and protect the dignity of other human beings.
A multitude of universities throughout the United States and the rest of the world practice safe spaces both in the classroom and in different student or campus organizations. Recently, many critics have said safe spaces stifle free speech.
Various campus organizations at UCLA, like the Cultural Affairs Commission, the Student Wellness Commission and its subcommittee Bruin Consent Coalition practice the idea of safe spaces.
Safe spaces can provide minority students who are silenced – both symbolically and literally – a valuable place to share their experiences and support each other.
At UCLA, BCC practices safe spaces in order to provide survivors of sexual assault a place to heal and tell their stories. BCC employs “content warnings” to warn students that sensitive material may be discussed. Sophia Arim, a fourth-year history student and co-director of BCC, acknowledged that trigger and content warnings do not violate the First Amendment.
“It’s a misconception. The word is ‘warning,’” Arim said. “Nobody is stopping you from (speaking), it’s just a warning to let you know sensitive material is coming.”
Arim’s co-director, third-year international development studies student Yong-Yi Chiang, said that using content warnings allows survivors to get air, take a break or otherwise prepare themselves to hear triggering language.
So there are certainly instances in which safe spaces can be an incredible tool to provide support, healing and progress to students who face unique challenges.
Sookie Kwan, a third-year fine arts and sociology student and member of the Cultural Affairs Commission’s marketing and design team, said that CAC works to foster the concept of safe spaces in retreats the group puts on together as well as the events they host. In their retreats for members of the commission, Kwan said they lay out guidelines and ground rules regarding accountability and respect in order to consciously participate in a safe space together.
CAC is all about expression, different interests and different ideas, which is reflected in the art series, concerts and festivals they put on, as well as their popular spoken-word series “The Word on Wednesday.” Kwan said that while CAC creates safe spaces in their events, they work to move past a “herd” or “groupthink” mentality.
“It’s important to consider the context,” Kwan said. “(Creating a safe space) isn’t as simple as carving out a space for yourself and people like you.”
Kwan hit on an important point in that safe spaces need to go further to truly include all different voices, including people that hold different opinions. She said that one of CAC’s goals is to host productive, constructive events that get people talking, because if “woke” people only talk to “woke” people, they are going to perpetuate a symphony of woke-ness.
“(We work to give) more spaces to people without voices,” Kwan said. “But it’s counterproductive if someone is using the platform they are given to be destructive or harmful. You can’t be careless or reckless.”
So while safe spaces are an invaluable tool to many different types of students, they also can have the potential to be problematic. Too often, safe spaces can foster environments in which many like-minded people band together. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, in the increasingly divisive political and cultural climate this country – and our campus – faces, the sort of echo chambers that safe spaces foster can be quite dangerous.
Furthermore, the idea of silencing people who hold opinions that do not line up with a group mentality – no matter how blatant or covert – directly violates the First Amendment.
This all begs the question – when is it appropriate to use safe spaces, and when is it not?
The answer isn’t simple, and many different universities throughout the country are weighing in.
In the fall, the University of Chicago sent a letter to all incoming students saying the University does not support the practice of safe spaces or trigger warnings. The Dean of Students who sent the letter cited a commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom as justification for the decision.
I think this approach is too black-and-white. As we’ve seen with BCC and other organizations throughout the country that promote healing for victims of sexual assault, safe spaces can provide an incredibly valuable arena in which to share experiences and heal. Many safe spaces dedicated to LGBTQ students, students of color, undocumented students and other minority students can serve the same purpose.
However, there are certainly instances in which safe spaces can perpetuate the silencing of free speech and do not provide a forum of constructive discussion.
Alan Levinovitz, a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University, found that in some instances, especially in a classroom setting, the practice of safe spaces could be limiting free speech as well as thoughtful academic discussion.
“Although trigger warnings and safe spaces claim to create an environment where everyone is free to speak their minds, the spirit of tolerance and respect that inspires these policies can also stifle dialogue about controversial topics, particularly race, gender, and, in my experience, religious beliefs,” he said in an Aug. 30, 2016 op-ed for the Atlantic.
And then we must evaluate the intersection between the soft social constructs of safe spaces and the glaring rigidity of the law.
For example, in fall of 2015, University of Missouri professor Melissa Click was charged with third-degree assault after trying to physically prevent student reporter Tim Tai from entering an encampment of the student group Concerned Student 1950, which was protesting a smattering of racist incidents on Mizzou’s campus. Click assaulted Tai as a means to protect and enforce the safe space Concerned Student 1950 implemented. The fact that she was charged shows that assault is assault no matter the context, and that safe spaces are not given a free pass in regards to the law.
In short, safe spaces can not supercede the law, nor an individual’s First Amendment rights.
I think universities need to critically evaluate how they practice safe spaces. They often are incredibly constructive. However, the First Amendment forbids us from silencing people based on their opinions, and we must acknowledge that safe spaces have the potential to create dangerous echo chambers. Campus organizations should follow suit and continue to use safe spaces as a constructive arena in which members can discuss, understand and celebrate intelligent dissent and debate while using said conversation as a catalyst for change.