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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Beyond free speech?

Two weeks ago, the University of Chicago informed incoming first-year students that the school would not support safe spaces, trigger warnings and censoring lectures in a commitment to “freedom of inquiry and expression.”

A few days later, Northwestern University’s president argued for something a bit different, urging readers to consider how safe spaces and trigger warnings were a much-needed response to students’ concerns — especially those experiencing psychological traumas and discrimination.

The media response revolving around these two messages has been disappointingly reductive. If we take the derivative op-eds and reader comments as gospel, we are left with depictions of a coddled left and an insensitive right fighting for the last word in a culture war of eschatological proportions. If recent political developments have taught us anything, it’s exactly this sort of rhetoric that kills any hope of communication.

Now I realize that Notre Dame, unlike its Chicagoan neighbors, has remained out of national spotlight throughout this debate aimed at defining the limits of free speech on the college campus. But, as students, it’s very much our responsibility to join the discussion, keeping in mind that solutions often lie in finding a middle ground.

In this spirit, here’s my own take on the issue: while schools must always err on the side of upholding free speech, we as students have a responsibility to address the underlying concerns that give our peers reason to demand school-wide implementation of trigger warnings, safe spaces and lecture censorship.

This means the University of Chicago should be applauded for adopting an official stance not to support these particular policies. Support for them would privilege an intellectual or personal conviction that not everyone may hold, obstructing a more general commitment to academic inquiry that should challenge deeply held assumptions, not confirm them.

In any case, saying, “we will not support X” is a far weaker statement than its negation. Put another way, if a university supported trigger warnings or safe spaces, disagreeing with this position would be a matter of opting out of official policy. In the University of Chicago’s case, however, students who disagree with the decision are free to submit their own arguments in favor of trigger warnings and safe spaces. Opting out of policy is exclusionary. Offering the possibility of new policy is constructive, and exactly the kind of discussion that free speech protects.

Which brings me to the second part of my argument. As students, we in fact have just as great a commitment to our community as to our right to free speech. At Notre Dame, where even in its name we invoke a sense of shared and catholic identity, we must care about things beyond ourselves.

This means we must listen to those experiencing genuine psychological distress, and ensure their participation in campus discussion is not hindered by it. Accommodations in the classroom should be made to students who suffer debilitating traumas, in the same manner of discretion with which faculty accommodate students with physical and learning disabilities. What this looks like in practice is largely a private matter between student and professor. More importantly, however, a student’s health history should not become a matter of class-wide scrutiny, and neither should the academic adjustments made to address these concerns.

We must also take a look at the term “safe space,” broadly defined as an area where one can pursue full freedom of expression without fear of negative consequence. If, fearing harassment or even physical harm due to identity, someone finds refuge in a “safe space,” that only reflects there is something seriously wrong in the environment, and something must be done about it. If, however, one designates a “safe space” solely to be an area insulating those of a certain mindset, identity or worldview from disagreement, that is a different matter.

Notre Dame has no place for the latter, not least because such a space erodes our shared responsibility to talk through difference. But the very call for “safe spaces” may indicate underlying social problems that have gone ignored. These concerns must be addressed by the greater student body and the university, in hopes that one day, even the notion of “safe space” encompasses something far greater.

No, refusing to support widespread implementation of trigger warnings and safe spaces is not “insensitive.” Providing the support that students with genuine concerns need is not “coddling.” Before we ourselves get caught up in this sort of name-calling, consider that when all is said and done, our call to compassion, not our right to say what we please, will change lives.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.