The University of Chicago has sent a message to incoming freshmen students last week informing students that it does not accept or support “trigger warnings” or the creation of “safe spaces.”
In the letter, Dean of Students John Ellison says,
“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 perspectives at odds with their own.”
The letter had a very controversial response online with some people praising the university for not “coddling” students while others argued that safe spaces are necessary for the well-being of marginalised students.
Safe spaces were not created because students did not want to interact with others that had differing opinions. They were created because minority students and students that had been victims of assault or violence needed a space on campus where they could feel “safe” since the rest of the campus was to them, unsafe.
A safe space was originally defined as a term used “to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.”
The term has since transformed and now includes a space for all individuals who are marginalised to come together and talk about their experiences without fear.
Although the university may believe that they are protecting students’ rights to free speech, the question we need to ask is whose freedom of speech is being protected here?
This policy (or lack thereof) puts students in a position of having to enter spaces that may or not be safe for them to learn in. I had many classmates and friends throughout college, myself included, who used safe spaces as a sanctuary where they could be heard. Safe spaces became places where students could go to break free from racist, sexist, and homophobic views (among others).
In addition, trigger warnings are extremely useful and often necessary for students who have been victims of assault, or violence, or students who may suffer from PTSD.
We do not need to abandon trigger warnings in order to achieve academic freedom. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, the dismissal of trigger warnings and the dissolution of safe spaces are going to hinder the academic freedom and learning of those students that need them.
The abandonment of trigger warnings and safe spaces is only protecting the voices of the students who didn’t need them in the first place.