Chicago's Safe Space for Free Speech

Safe, but not too safe.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It shouldn’t qualify as news when a university says it strives to be an intellectually unsafe space that encourages unrestricted discussion. Yet the current climate on American campuses virtually guaranteed that a letter from the University of Chicago’s dean of students to the incoming class of 2020 would generate controversy.

“Our commitment to academic freedom,” reads the letter, revealed last week, “means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Admirable sentiments all, yet the backlash was swift -- including from the university itself, which issued a qualifying statement pointing out that professors maintain discretion in advising students about “difficult material,” while emphasizing that the college seeks to maintain “welcoming venues” for discussion. It is certainly true that professors have the right to say what they want in class, and alerting students to content that may be personally painful needn’t be more than a simple expression of empathy.

At the same time, the classroom belongs to the university, not the professor. And while empathy is an essential human quality, attempts to institutionalize it can be ruinous. Once rules are established, they acquire logic and momentum of their own, leading to ever more rules erected to honor ever more sensitivities. Honest intellectual debate can survive only so many roadblocks. 

The situation at Chicago is reminiscent of one at Yale two years ago, when no less than the university president welcomed the incoming class with a speech about the importance of free expression. The very next year, however, the university’s institutional hypocrisy was exposed -- with Yale embroiled in a pointless controversy over, among other things, the political correctness of Halloween costumes.

The fight for free speech on campus clearly has a way to go. The goal of the college experience should be to expose students to different cultures, experiences, viewpoints, even cuisines. That means universities need to exert more control over what happens not only in the classroom, but also in the dormitory and the dining hall.

Then, once they graduate, students will be better equipped to understand both their country and their place in it. The more Americans practice the art of respectfully engaging their differences, the better off America’s civic life will be.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.