In a recent letter to incoming University of Chicago freshmen, Dean of Students John Jay Ellison seemed to clearly state the administration's opposition to two hot-button issues: trigger warnings (when a professor alerts students to upcoming material that might trigger trauma) and safe spaces (places on campus where marginalized students can share experiences without judgment). The letter has since sparked a familiar debate about whether freedom of expression in universities is being stifled or encouraged by these tools.
Geoffrey Stone, a first amendment specialist at the University of Chicago, says that letter has been widely misread. He talks with Brooke about the real reasons why he believes the space for free speech is narrowing on college campuses.
Geoffrey Stone is a professor of Law at the University of Chicago, where he specializes in the First Amendment. He’s helped stake out the university’s position on free speech and says that that letter sent to freshmen that sparked this whole debate has been widely misread. He says the university is fine with both trigger warnings and safe spaces, as long as the former isn't mandatory or the latter exclusive.
GEOFFREY STONE: The letter, which was written by the Dean of Students in the college, was basically meant to suggest that trigger warnings and safe spaces are both problematic concepts in an institution committed to academic freedom and to a robust political discourse. I think they’ve been misconstrued as suggesting that trigger warnings should be prohibited, even if faculty members wish to offer them and that the idea of safe spaces, which is a very ambiguous term, in general, is inappropriate, which is not at all what the letter said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. That’s sure not what he said though. He said, we don't support trigger warnings, we don't condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces. So “condone” means the college is withholding its blessing from the creation of these safe spaces and that they don't support trigger warnings.
GEOFFREY STONE: It’s saying it doesn’t encourage them, but it's up to the individual faculty member. It's a short letter addressed to entering students. It was not meant to be this huge public issue. As I’ve said before, I think this is much ado about nothing. I don't, in any way, begrudge the discussion of these kinds of questions. Having discussions about trigger warnings and about safe spaces and about, certainly, academic freedom, those are great issues. But coming back over and over again to the letter, which was written by a dean of students, not by the university president, not by a faculty committee, is just taking it way out of proportion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve written about how freedom of expression in American universities has kind of seesawed for centuries. Could you give us a brief history?
GEOFFREY STONE: Sure. In the early 19th century and before that, universities were places in which the leaders of the institution would dictate, based on a principle of doctrinal moralism, what ideas could and could not be expressed. During the 1820s and ‘30s and ‘40s, during the debates over slavery, there were faculty members and students in the North who were disciplined or fired because of their defense of slavery, and there were faculty members in the South who were fired because of their criticism of slavery.
It was during the era of Darwin and the dispute over creationism that universities, for the first time, began to talk seriously about freedom of expression, the quest for truth and not to be bound by conventional wisdom. But even then, the issues continued to roil. During World War I, universities disciplined students and faculty members who raised questions about the legitimacy of the war. During the McCarthy era, of course, universities across the country basically banned any student or faculty member who was seen in any way as sympathetic to Communism. During the Vietnam era, there were strong disputes about the appropriateness of dissent on campuses.
So this has been an ongoing issue from all of our history, but increasingly over time universities have come to accept the principle that for them to meet their responsibilities, faculty and students alike need to be able to express their views without having some senior officials determining what ideas are or are not permissible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how would you characterize the state of academic freedom now?
GEOFFREY STONE: I would say that, once again, it is under serious challenge. It's different from many of the prior episodes. Historically, the students were always the champions of academic freedom and of their own free speech. In this instance, ironically, it is the students who are the primary forces calling for censorship.
The other difference is that traditionally it tended to be political conservatives who favored censorship. And now, interestingly, it’s political conservatives who are robustly defending the freedom of speech. Liberals, who have always been the champions of free speech, both nationally and in universities, are divided. There are the sort of traditional liberals, like myself, who strongly believe in academic freedom and there are others who basically say, well, even more important than free speech and academic freedom is ensuring that individuals who feel marginalized or alienated are protected from that environment and, therefore, free speech should be confined.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, we spoke to a UChicago grad who sees trigger warnings and safe spaces as essential to creating a campus climate in which all people feel free to express themselves.
GEOFFREY STONE: Well, if the key meaning of a safe space is that students can get together with other students who have similar backgrounds and experiences and share their experiences with one another, learn from one another, feel safe in their conversations with each other, make plans, invite speakers, all colleges and universities have endless student organizations supported by the universities, designed to enable them to do that. That’s what, in my view, a safe space should be understood to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Cameron Okeke, the University of Chicago grad that we spoke to, said that the safe space for him was the Multicultural Center, where people of all different backgrounds got together without having to be the representative of a community that the majority of students wouldn't likely encounter, in other words, a place where they could have a freer expression without constantly trying to justify their own presence.
GEOFFREY STONE: Sure and these - that's a good idea, and they exist all over the place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s all he’s supporting. And maybe this is just an argument over definitions?
GEOFFREY STONE: That’s partly what I've been trying to say, is if “safe space” means a physical location that is earmarked only for people of a certain background and only people of that background that are allowed to enter some particular permanent space, that's a different issue. The reality is it’s critical for students to have an opportunity to congregate with other students with similar experiences and to work things out themselves, and that exists all over universities, as it should.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you do think that academic freedom is under threat.
GEOFFREY STONE: The issues about academic freedom are about canceling speakers, intimidating students and faculty from saying things, demanding that the university punish students for saying things that other students don't like. That's the threat. It’s not about trigger warnings, frankly, and safe spaces. It's about the effort to exclude from universities the expression of ideas that some students disagree with. That's the threat to academic freedom. And it is as serious a threat as we've seen in the last 40 years.
And social media, by the way, makes it far worse than it ever was before because it used to be that if a faculty member or a student said something that was controversial, you could have an argument, you could have a debate, you could say things that, you know, were provocative. Today, those statements wind up on social media and for the rest your life people can find it and look it up and take it out of context. And we’re seeing real chilling effects on the willingness of students and faculty to, to speak openly, to speak candidly, to speak courageously. That's not a healthy thing for academic freedom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give an example, so that listeners will know the sort of thing you’re talking about?
GEOFFREY STONE: At one college, a group of students talked on the sidewalk, “Trump in 2016” and other students demanded that the students who had done that be disciplined because the message, “Trump in 2016” made them feel unsafe. At another institution, indeed, at many institutions, students learning that a particular speaker had been invited to the campus insisted that the university withdraw the invitation and, to avoid controversy, the university acquiesced. In other situations, the speaker comes the campus and students and others disrupt the event, yelling and screaming, and so on, to the point where the event is canceled. Those are just common occurrence these days, and they're not consistent with what universities should aspire to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The president of the Evergreen State College, George Bridges, wrote in the Seattle Times this week. “Colleges and universities must change as the society changes. And unlike 10 to 20 years ago, schools must now acknowledge and address issues that they have largely ignored in the past, sexual violence on campus, its effects on student victims, the impact of war experiences on veterans returning to college…”
And, what’s more, there’s a real effort by colleges to recruit more diverse student populations, people who weren’t there before, low-income students, people of color, people with disabilities, transgender people. These are new times that may call for new measures.
GEOFFREY STONE: I agree completely with that, but it does not call for censorship. The mission of a university is to empower students, to make them effective, to teach them how to address things that are offensive and problematic and challenging, so they can persuade other people that they are right. The mission of a university is not to shield students, because the world will not shield them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
GEOFFREY STONE: My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Geoffrey Stone is professor of Law at the University of Chicago, where he specializes in the First Amendment.