Safe spaces ‘triggering’ constitutional, educational debate

By Gillian Dunlop, Contributing Writer

The phrases “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings recently became a highly debated topic in academia. The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, Jay Ellison, sent the incoming class of 2020 a letter stating that the university “does not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’” and that they “do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” 

Although undefined in the letter, trigger warnings are generally thought of as a statement alerting an audience that the following information might be distressing. Safe spaces are typically thought of as a space where groups of people can meet without feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe due to their sex, race, religion or any other affiliation.

To Gioconda Guerra Pérez, director of La Casa Cultural Latina, a safe space is not necessarily a place where the conversation is one-sided, but rather a place where students feel comfortable expressing many different opinions.

“The word ‘safe’ has become, for some people, a way to protect or to enclose a group of people,” she said. “But to me that is not what safe means. Safe means, ‘I feel comfortable,’ ‘I feel like I belong,’ ‘I feel safe,’ in terms of physical and mental and emotional health.”

Much of the debate surrounding safe spaces is due to the potential restriction of free speech that they present. A traditional public forum is a place where the government cannot limit speech, such as a park or the Main Quad.

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    A limited public forum, however, is a space the government opens up but only for specific speakers or subjects. A public university is allowed under the constitution to have a limited public forum, but they cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination. This means that the University cannot provide a space to a group it may favor and not allow a group it disfavors access to same space.

    The Main Quad is a traditional public forum, so it cannot become a safe space unless there is viewpoint neutrality. What often happens is controversial issues end up being viewpoint-based, which then limits free speech in a traditional public forum and becomes a direct violation of the First Amendment.

    Daniel Johnson, member of Men of Impact and sophomore in Media, echoed Guerra Pérez’s sentiments.

    “(The University) does a good job of trying to include everyone, but safe spaces are essential,” he said.

    In Ellison’s letter, he argues that safe spaces make it so “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” thereby inhibiting academic growth.

    Not all faculty members at the University of Chicago, as well as other universities agreed, including Guerra Pérez.

    “I don’t think a student is not going to get what they need academically if they decide not to attend a speaker, because they disagree with some of that speaker’s opinions that they bring to campus,” she said. “As an institution, we have a responsibility to educate the students, but we also have responsibility to make the students feel welcome and like they belong.”

    Professor Ben Holden had another opinion on the controversy.

    “The fight to not have people say words that hurt your feelings, I believe, is a fight that you ought not be using,” he said. “If a man is a fool, let him speak out so that everyone will know. Building a shield around discussion only helps the people who are on the wrong side of the issue.”

    Trigger warnings, on the other hand, do not necessarily impact the constitution if they are voluntarily given, Holden said.

    “The issue with trigger warnings is not giving them, it’s requiring them,” he said. “If (trigger warnings) were required and subject matter-based, this is probably a violation of the First Amendment.”

    Myla Cook, a member of the executive board for the African Cultural Association and Illini Media Company employee, said she believes professors should be required to give trigger warnings and be held responsible for their actions if they do not.

    “It’s a courtesy, because some people are uncomfortable seeing certain things and hearing certain things they shouldn’t be forced to,” Cook said. “Be respectful.”

    Johnson agreed that professors as a whole should give them as well.

    “We came here to learn, not to feel uncomfortable,” he said.

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