Trustees | Freedom of Expression

College president says ‘safe spaces serve to advance speech’

THE COLLEGE FIX   |  June 11, 2018 by Jennifer Kabbany

The nonpartisan American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently published a report by George Mason University law Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm titled “Building a Culture of Free Expression on the American College Campus: Challenges & Solutions.”

The 35-page essay cites the parade of threats facing higher education today and some recommendations to help stem the tide. Among them, Malcolm suggested campuses foster an ethos that respects free speech and debate and emphasize that priority starting with freshmen orientation. Also, speakers and their audiences should be given good protection by campus police when necessary, and students who disrupt an officially scheduled event or harass a speaker should be “strongly disciplined.” Malcolm also called for an end to restrictive speech codes.

All thoughtful — and timely — ideas. Malcolm, whose scholarly research is the stuff that swings Supreme Court decisions, notes that:

There is little time to waste. A Gallup/Knight survey of over 3,000 college students, conducted in March 2018, showed that 61% of U.S. college students believe the climate on their campus prevents some people from expressing their views because others might find them offensive. That percentage is up seven points since 2016. When asked to choose whether inclusion or free speech matters more, inclusion won over free speech, 53% to 46%.

The report did draw at least one sharp public rebuke from Steven Bahls, president of Augustana College in Illinois and a former law school dean. It appears Bahls is a fan of safe spaces. For example, Augustana College is among the colleges that banned the anonymous social media app Yik Yak from campus Wi-Fi networks to protect students from hurt feelings.

“In fact, all safe spaces serve to advance speech by enabling those who are often disenfranchised to have a place and platform to develop their views before adding their voices to the open dialogue,” writes Bahls in Inside Higher Ed.

Bahls’ writing style relies heavily on throwing out a bunch of loaded questions, but we’ll take the time to answer them with some loaded questions of our own. Writes Bahls:

As with most criticism of safe spaces, the report fails to define the safe spaces it is concerned about. Colleges are traditionally full of safe spaces where like-minded people gather — think faculty lounges and locker rooms as well as culture houses. Why do safe spaces only come under fire from groups like ACTA when they are spaces for people who disagree with controversial speakers or when they are spaces for underrepresented students to gather to support each other?

Are you seriously equating a locker room — where people get naked and shower — with safe rooms or alternative events set up for 20-somethings who have had their feelings hurts or who are apparently incapable of listening to another viewpoint?

Is ACTA, an advocate of free expression, really serious that faculty members must censor their own political beliefs when discussing matters of public policy? Does ACTA really believe that college students can’t make up their own minds when their beliefs are challenged by professors, or that college professors are not capable of working through bias when leading a class discussion that draws on political views? … Is ACTA serious in suggesting that readings that present only one side of an issue should be taken out of the classroom?

Are you suggesting it’s OK that 95 to 97 percent of humanities professors are registered Democrats who push their political beliefs in the classroom? Are you saying there is nothing wrong with the fact that students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees for a well-rounded education — only to be assigned reading lists that include all leftist and socialist propaganda with zero texts to offer a counterbalance? Are you comfortable dismissing the thousands of right-of-center and libertarian students who are afraid to speak up in class or tell the truth in their essays lest their grades be reduced by scholars who are openly hostile to conservative views? Are you arguing that teenage and 20-something students should already know how to easily discern, debate and refute the biased and one-sided arguments shoved down their throats for 90 minutes every M/W/F by professors who are more interested in convincing students than educating them?

At the end of the day, any college president who tries to argue that everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here, move along — they are part of the problem, not the solution.

For those who want to read a solid summary of some of the problems facing higher education and a few smart solutions, we recommend Malcolm’s report.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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