The line between hate speech and free speech persists on college campuses

Milo Yiannopoulos stands in the Quad after his speech was shut down due to student protests. (Photo by Josh Leff / The DePaulia)
Milo Yiannopoulos stands in the Quad after his speech was shut down due to student protests. (Photo by Josh Leff / The DePaulia)

In a letter to its incoming freshman class of 2020, University of Chicago’s Dean of Students John Ellison, amongst welcoming and congratulatory words, made clear that the prestigious institution did not support the notion of safe spaces, trigger warnings, or the cancelation of controversial speakers.
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspective at odds with their own,” the letter reads.

Whether Ellison’s letter was written as a direct response to DePaul University’s recent controversial events or not, it is very applicable.

DePaul senior Charia McDonald was heavily involved in the protest of Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial, right-wing speaker and journalist, appearance on campus last spring. The morning of his visit she was not expecting to be one of the 15 students who, at the sound of a whistle, would run to the stage Yiannopoulos was sitting on as an act of protest towards his beliefs.

Lately, there has been a national debate among universities if safe spaces and higher learning can coexist.

Safe spaces, espacially in an university setting, are necessary and crucial to make progress within social issues. Safe spaces are a natural action all individuals partake in. Due to recent events, there has been a misconception of safe spaces. Some viewing it as a way to hide from contrasting opinions, but rather safe spaces are settings where students with opposing viewpoints can intellectually discuss differences in hopes to make progress with the matter.

“We are a place where everyone can say what they want because we believe in the constitution and varying ideas,” Nicole Been, president of DePaul’s College Republicans said. “We are open to all opinions and we invite all political affilations.”

Much controversy has played DePaul including how the situation was handled. Questions regarding where free speech, safe spaces and trigger warnings fell into this situation were vigorously asked and still are. The event resulted in Yiannopoulos’ speech being shut down some have referred to this as censorship. Students like McDonald, being verbally attacked during protests lead to many students feeling unsafe.

More attention to the issue of speaker censorship continued during the summer when the university did not allow Ben Shapiro, conservative writer and Daily Wire editor-in-chief, to speak on campus. The decision to not host Shapiro was made by Associate Vice President for Facilities Bob Janis and Vice President of Student Affairs Eugene Zdziarski. Janis and Zdiarski concluded in a past interview with The DePaulia, that the decision to ban Shapiro was based on a lack of sufficient security, not on free speech.

In the same letter the University of Chicago acknowledges freedom of speech does not allow for hate speech.

“Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass and threaten others,” the letter states.

Where should students like McDonald go to process harassment they’ve faced after this event and their whole lives based on their identity? Where should the DePaul College Republican students go to reflect after their event and speaker were shut down?

This is where the existence of safe spaces comes in.

Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, is for safe spaces. In a letter addressing the topic, which was published in The Washington Post, he clarified his position.

“A safe space needs to be viewed as a space students go to feel comfortable, but yet discuss opposing opinions different to them,” Schapiro said in his op-ed.

Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity, Elizabeth Ortiz, weighed on the controversy surronding safe spaces in an university level.

“To answer the question can safe spaces and higher education coexist, they certainly can,” Ortiz said. “Safe spaces can be anything where an individual feels comfortable with who they are and their ideals, but the intention of a safe space is to not be a place to hide from opinions that may target you.”

For those who are against safe spaces the argument hinges on the basis that safe spaces are a barrier from a student being exposed to differing opinions. Opponents argue that safe spaces create disassociation from others leading to an atmosphere of similar thoughts and a lack of mental growth.

“It’s a place to go to marginalize yourself from others. At a university level you have to be able to interact with people with different views, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and you shouldn’t be afraid to,” DePaul senior Traevon Robinson and member of College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom member said. “Safe spaces are places people go to when they are scared. You basically don’t feel capable of interacting with people with different views. You are disassociating yourself from others. Maybe that’s not the point of it, but that’s one of the outcomes.”

The hasty protest was not a proper way to counter Yiannopoulos, yet no intellectual conversation can rise from someone stating erroneous and offensive comments about a certain demographic of students. Neither, is it correct to ban speakers at a university level. As a response, students feel the need to have safe spaces, either formal or informal, to find a place of comfort after events like last spring, but yet there are sensitive topics that need to be addressed and discussed intellectually. An appropriate setting for doing this would be in a safe space.

“The criticism is that students have to learn to be uncomfortable in the real world. For diverse students, depending upon what that identity is, the world is an unsafe space. They’re going to have plenty of opportunities to be challenged and their identities challenged,” Ortiz said. “I don’t think that you can say because we provide this room here we are denying them that opportunity. What we are providing them here is a haven to go feel comfortable so they can go out and engage in that unsafe space.”

After a town hall forum was organized after the disputed Yiannopoulos event, Father Holtschneider, Executive Vice President Jeffrey Bethke, Provost Marten den Boer and Ortiz gathered all feedback.  As a result, Academic Affairs and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity drew resources on managing difficult conversations as well as establishing an environment that promotes respectful dialogue.

“In an university, what’s our home away from home?(…)In many times it’s these safe spaces. It’s a place where we can be ourselves its a place to go where people understand (each other) and students do that naturally,” Ortiz said. “Students get together to form that sense of community. Students get together by common interest common backgrounds to get that sense of belonging it’s natural.”

There are formal and informal safe spaces. Sororities, fraternities and clubs are safe spaces. The Office of Health Promotion and Wellness, as well as the Center for Black Diaspora, are formal safe spaces among many others. “Safe spaces” are a place for similar students to meet and discuss issues that affect them and they are needed. Safe spaces are not places students go to hide away from opposing opinions, but rather to discuss them effectively and put differences into practice.