MILLER: 'Safe spaces' benefit students, aren't overprotective

September 10, 2016

The University of Chicago has been in the news the last few weeks due to the school’s recent rejection of “safe spaces.” Dean of Students John Ellison penned a letter to the incoming class of 2020 stating, “We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

These comments received both applause and criticism, primarily from the right and left, respectively, making it an inherently political issue. All sides can agree that freedom of speech and expression are fundamental rights. So why is there such a divide?

Many people have a strong opposition to “political correctness,” feeling it is mere censorship. However, it is called political correctness because the language is correct. There are certain words that, as a society, we avoid because we have grown and now recognize them as offensive or incorrect. We use people’s correct pronouns and condemn racial slurs because we recognize this as dignity and respect for others. Freedom of speech still exists without the use of hateful language.

Yet, many people still use this objectionable rhetoric in everyday conversation. Perhaps they do not mean any harm or offense. But that does not mitigate the effects of language on targeted groups or individuals. For example, someone might think their racially charged joke is funny. However, others might find it bothersome and not funny at all. In fact, it might make other people extremely uneasy.

As a young woman, I feel very uncomfortable when my peers speak lightheartedly about rape and sexual assault. It makes light of a serious crime and makes me feel unsafe.

Many university students might feel unsafe on campus for a variety of reasons, some very serious. In response, students create organizations or spaces where they feel totally comfortable being themselves. This could be an organization for women, LGBTQ groups, a Black Student Union, or a Hillel Center, to name a few.

These groups are not created to eliminate free speech but expand it. These spaces allow those who have had unsafe experiences to converse about their feelings and ideas free from judgment.It is counterproductive to allow hateful language in these spaces, when their purpose is to create a zone of comfort and support.

Students are not asking to be “coddled.” They are well aware of the dangers and language of the “real world” because they have experienced it firsthand. This is why they desire and appreciate safe spaces. On the contrary, supportive spaces make students more equipped to handle life’s challenges. An outlet to discuss troubling or frightening issues with understanding peers can help individuals function more comfortably in public spaces.

There is nothing wrong with professors warning students that a reading might include violent or racist language. Some students might need to mentally prepare themselves, and that is completely understandable.

Here in Indiana, there have been several instances of racial violence in the past year, including on college campuses. A supportive space would allow students to process and discuss their feelings and concerns with sympathetic peers. This ultimately makes students feel more comfortable on campus, both socially and academically.

Safe spaces are not overprotective. They create a supportive environment for students and improve mental health and happiness. Safe spaces should be celebrated, not condemned.•


Miller studies policy analysis at Indiana University and works as political director for the College Democrats of Indiana. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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