The campus free speech debate was back in the media spotlight these past few weeks after an incident at Yale University. Controversy followed a mass email sent by Yale Professor Erika Christakis, in which she questioned the school’s policy on culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. The response was fast and furious; students called on her to resign, and her husband, a fellow Yale professor, was publicly insulted by an angry student in a viral video that has come to encapsulate the absurdity of the whole situation. Aside from Yale, maybe it’s time to start rethinking the approach to safe space at McGill. In order to ensure the credibility of safe spaces while protecting freedom of expression, safe spaces must be clearly defined.
Media outlets across the internet were quick to condemn the Yale students’ reaction as censorship, and rightfully so. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Professor Christakis’ view on Halloween costumes, calling for her resignation because she voiced her opinion is a clear violation of her right to free speech. Instead of focusing on who is to blame every time an incident like this occurs, people should instead be thinking about how to resolve the core issue at play in most of these campus free speech cases. Universities can’t protect free expression and “safe spaces,” where students are protected from any speech that might make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
In liberal democratic societies like the United States and Canada, free speech is curtailed only for the most morally reprehensible types of expression: Hate speech, child pornography, Holocaust denial, and so on. But by insisting on an environment in which everyone feels comfortable and safe, safe spaces greatly expand this speech ‘naughty list’ by lumping in anything that could make one feel uncomfortable. The encroachment of the safe space on the right to free speech is undeniable.
McGill, for one, should pay attention. Every year, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms compiles a Campus Freedom Report, examining the state of free expression at 52 different universities across Canada. In the 2014 report, McGill was ranked third on the list of the top 10 worst universities for protecting free speech. The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) also ranked third to worst on the equivalent list of Canadian student unions. Even though the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is known for its right-leaning bias, these marks are so poor that McGill and SSMU could probably get free ice cream at Frostbite.
For example, In October 2013, the Vice-President (VP) Internal of SSMU joked about midterms with an Obama GIF in a mass email, and was forced to apologize and participate in racial sensitivity training. Out of the email’s 22,000 recipients, only one complained of a microaggression. Incidents like this make it clear that when it comes to safe space, we have the wrong approach.
Safe spaces do serve a valuable purpose on university campuses. Students have a right to an inclusive and protected space where they feel comfortable. Any university that values openness and inclusion needs to provide this. But it is possible to reconcile the need for safe spaces with the protection of free speech: The solution is to better define which spaces are safe, and which are free.
The problem with safe space on campus is that it’s not clearly delimited. For students, the principle of safe space on campus seems to be defined in much the same way Obi-wan Kenobi defines the Force: It binds the campus together (although it unfortunately can’t help people move objects with their minds). If students want to overcome the tensions between safe space and free speech, they need to limit each one to the areas in which they are most appropriate. Residences, student lounges, and cafeterias are places where students go to feel accepted and at home: These must remain safe. But lectures, conferences, classrooms, debates, as well as the internet, are where students, faculty members and guest speakers go to express themselves, to challenge their views and the views of others—these are places where free speech needs to be protected. If McGill wants to preserve free speech, it must decide which parts of campus are safe and which are not. Safe space is supposed to refer to a physical space, not a way of life. It needs to stay that way.
Do you have thoughts on freedom of speech and safe spaces? Send a message to [email protected].