Eliminating Free Thoughts in the Name of False Safety

What does it mean to be safe on campus? The word is so often invoked—creating “safe zones” or maintaining a “safe environment”—that it has arguably become meaningless.

Perhaps more accurately, it has taken on a second meaning, specific to the university. Whereas the real-world definition refers essentially to one’s physical well-being, in the campus context “safety” has become synonymous with feeling comfortable, or not hearing challenging words or ideas—threats, simply put, to one’s emotional state and level of comfort.

This disparity transcends linguistics. It speaks to how the modern university prepares—or fails to prepare—students for the real world. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with administrators caring for student comfort in all of its forms. But when that encroaches on basic campus liberties as well as to the academy’s core educational mission, even those sympathetic to a given group’s cause must take a step back. Events over the past two weeks at the University of Rhode Island provide a clear example.

“It looks like we are going to get everything we need for our safety,” Brian Stack, a University of Rhode Island student, told the Brown Daily Herald three days after the end of a sit-in protesting the treatment of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) students at URI.

For eight days, students had occupied a room in the URI library, demanding, according to the newspaper, “a larger space to accommodate the GLBT Center, a full-time paid employee to address the needs of GLBT students, compensation for student staff members and sensitivity training for faculty, staff and resident advisers.” The administration reportedly complied with the above demands on October 1st, and the sit-in ended shortly thereafter.

What problem so energized the student protesters and so vanquished the backbone of the URI administration? In mid-August, students reported feeling “harassment” when a group of males shouted “faggot” from their automobile before speeding off, according to the Herald. Further, in early September, GLBT students were frustrated at the ineffectiveness of their sensitivity training of resident advisors. “No one paid attention,” Stack told the Herald, “and some people walked away thinking ‘that’s so gay’ is freedom of speech and they don’t have to do anything about it.”

When the GLBT group began their sit-in, the atmosphere heated up even more after an anonymous note was “placed under a GLBT Center staff member’s door saying ‘shut up faggots we know where you live.'” VP of Student Affairs Tom Dougan explained that these incidents justified the $800,000 building program, the additional hiring (even in a time of severe austerity), and the sensitivity training: “We want to make this a welcoming and safe campus for everyone,” he said.

Well, perhaps not quite everyone. It is hardly evident, after all, that the campus is “safe” for students who might want to say something that could conceivably give offense to a student with a different sexual orientation. This need not, of course, be simply a gross epithet like “faggot.” A gay student might report being offended by another student’s opposition to gay marriage, or by a professor’s leading a debate on the biological or other bases for homosexuality, or by a campus student religious leader suggesting the moral failings of alternative lifestyles.

When the search for a “welcoming” as well as “safe” campus becomes a primary goal in an academic community, all manner and kind of dissenting views—from highly intellectual theses to crude epithets and the vast array of forms of expression in between—become an endangered species. Pretty soon, the campus may (or may not) be “safe” for students in self-described historically disadvantaged groups, but it surely becomes quite unsafe for disfavored views and disturbing words.

What, one may ask, is the problem with exterminating epithets? It is, for one thing, the inherent inferiority that this special protection implies to the targeted group. The implication that GLBT students can’t handle harsh words should offend any and all who believe in true equality.

This gets to the heart of why the measures taken at URI are ultimately a detriment to GLBT students. Campuses are surely entitled to establish, within the confines of the law, their own community values. But it provides a false sense of comfort when administrators reward thin-skinned responses to the sometimes-unpleasant realities of a free society. Once students leave campus, there will be no higher authority to redress a drive-by-shouting, or a nasty note. The major reason for this, of course, is that outside in the “real world,” the First Amendment (and various state constitutional equivalents) protects free expression. And, in fact, even though campus administrators often ignore this fact, constitutional protections for speech apply on all public campuses as well.

On a more fundamental level, bowing to the demands of those whose sensitivities have been offended runs counter to the very standard to which equal-rights movements have historically appealed and under which they have sought the shelter of liberty and equality.

When the highest court in Massachusetts ruled seven years ago that no valid reason exists to deny same-sex couples the right to wed, I examined the opinion in a three-part series for the Boston Phoenixplacing the decision in historical context; parsing through the misguided reactions; and debunking the idea, floated by lawmakers and then-Governor Mitt Romney, of creating civil-unions in marriage’s stead.

The latter proposal was doomed from the outset, I wrote, because civil unions—a new species of separate-but-equal accommodations—violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” and its state constitutional equivalent, a staple of civil society and the pillar on which the SJC’s decision rested.

Whether it’s in Hammurabi’s Code (“an eye for an eye”), the New Testament (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), or the U.S. Constitution (“equal protection”), this so-called Golden Rule is the bedrock of social harmony and basic human rights. And it is nothing short of a violation of this tenet when a certain group is afforded more protection than others. That these campus codes create unequally treated categories of human beings, while carrying the mantle of “equality”, speaks to the power
of political labels—“designed,” as George Orwell wrote prophetically in 1946, “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Thus does the master observer of totalitarian tendencies explain how it is that students are “harassed” merely by being called an admittedly ugly name (“faggot”) by young people speeding off in a car (rather than any manner or kind of physical threat). What has happened to the notion that the presence of many different kinds of students and attendant beliefs on a campus of higher education is actually the essence of the liberal arts experience rather than a virus in need of official extirpation? And what self-respecting faculty, staff or resident adviser would, or should, put up with sensitivity training, a species of thought reform and control not unlike that in the dystopian world described by Orwell in his other classic writing, Nineteen-Eighty-Four.
According to a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, one out of every five students feels unsafe holding disfavored views on campus. It’s not unreasonable to think that, in their blinkered push to create “safe” and “welcoming” environments—thereby disregarding time-tested notions of equal treatment and intellectual freedom—administrators are making those who disagree with the reigning campus ethos feel, ironically, unsafe.

Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press 1998, HarperPerennial paperback 1999), and the co-founder and current Chairman of the Board of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). He thanks FIRE program associate Kyle Smeallie for assistance in the preparation of this piece.)


  • Harvey Silverglate

    Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer, is the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). He co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses.

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