‘Safe spaces’ vs. freedom of speech


Teaching a freshman seminar on freedom of speech on college campuses has made us aware of the urgent need to educate the current generation of students about the importance of the 1st Amendment. From the beginning of our course, we were surprised by the often unanimous willingness of our students to support efforts to restrict and punish a wide range of expression.

Surveys across the country confirm that our students are not unique. According to the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale, 72 percent of students support disciplinary action against “any student or faculty member who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.”

Young people’s support for freedom of speech has waned in part because of their admirable desire to create an educational environment where all can thrive. Our students or their friends have experienced the psychological harms of hateful speech or bullying more than they have experienced the social harms of censorship or the punishment of dissent.

Simply telling students to toughen up isn’t persuasive. Moreover, they were born long after the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests that gave their elders direct experience with the need for free expression. It is their education that’s lacking.

History demonstrates that when we give officials broad powers to restrict or punish speech considered hateful, offensive or demeaning, that power is inevitably abused. Unpopular speakers are victimized, and legitimate opinion silenced.

The students were surprised to learn that people went to prison for speech criticizing the draft during World War I, or for teaching or espousing communism during the 1920s and 1930s and in the McCarthy era. The 1st Amendment allowed oppressed and marginalized groups to challenge indecency laws, segregation, patriarchy and declarations of war.

Our students came to realize that there was no way to create a “safe space” on campuses where students could be free from one set of offenses without engaging in massive censorship, and perhaps creating another kind of offense.

Often the best remedy for hateful speech is more speech, not enforced silence.

By challenging and contesting offensive speech students learn to hone their voices in defense of their values, an important skill in a diverse democratic society. By contrast, punishing expression achieves little except to create martyrs.

Rather than mock students or ignore their concerns, we need to make sure they understand the context of the Constitution’s free speech guarantees.

Howard Gillman is chancellor at the University of California at Irvine. Erwin Chemerinsky is founding dean at the UC Irvine School of Law.