Education, Free Speech, recent

A Flawed Defense of Safe Spaces in the New York Times

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth offers a defense of “safe enough” spaces on our college and university campuses. Roth seeks to establish a middle ground between proponents who aspire “to make sure all students are made to feel welcome in or outside the classroom” and critics who see safe spaces as “sanctimonious ‘safetyism’—counterproductive coddling of students who feel fragile.” So, he asks, “what’s a university to do?”

“We should begin,” writes Roth in answer to his own question, “by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.” He provides historic examples of space spaces for employees and managers in post-World War II manufacturing, group therapy in psychiatry, and later feminist and gay liberation community building. None of this was controversial, he suggests.

But Roth’s examples are not really on point if the risk of safe spaces perceived by their critics, as Roth puts it, is of  “groups…enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view.” The creation of opportunities for open discussion between employees and managers, or for sharing of experiences among mental health patients, serves to burst bubbles, not insulate participants from other points of view. The building of community among feminists and gays may have reinforced narrow perspectives but their purpose was political, not educational. Safe spaces that encourage cooperation or facilitate political action are far different from safe spaces that insulate from discomfort.

Colleges and universities exist, first and foremost, to educate their students, not to consolidate shared interests, facilitate advocacy, or mask intellectual and emotional disagreements. Certainly those with common interests and shared experiences should be free to associate among themselves in clubs, advocacy groups, and private gatherings. And there is nothing wrong with colleges encouraging and facilitating such confabs as part of the life of the university, not to mention the right to freedom of association.

Roth also recounts historic threats to the physical safety of women and minorities by way of underscoring colleges’ responsibilities as parens patriae. Surely no one doubts that colleges and universities are entrusted with the physical and psychological welfare of their students, particularly undergraduates. But threats of physical and psychological harm bear little resemblance to the harms college safe spaces are intended to protect against. The former are obstacles to education (and usually illegal). The latter are essential to education. As Roth acknowledges, “our classrooms should never be so comfortable that intellectual confrontation becomes taboo or assumptions go unchallenged because everyone’s emotional well-being is overprotected.”

There is a difference between true psychological harm and hurt feelings. Perhaps Roth’s “safe enough” standard is meant to recognize that difference, but the reality on many campuses is that safe spaces encourage, in Roth’s words, the “siloing of perspectives” against which “[u]niversities must push back.”

There is also an important difference between student-organized clubs for people of shared interests or experiences and college safe spaces created for the express purpose of insulating students from discomfort. The former are invitations to collegiality. The latter are obstacles to the development of a true intellectual community.

Roth contends that the provision of “safe enough” spaces “is not saying that students need protection from argument or the discovery that they should change their minds.” Rather “[i]t is saying that students should be able to participate in argument and inquiry without the threat of harassment or intimidation.” Exactly right. It should be the mission of every college and university to assure that students of every perspective and experience are free to express their opinions. But the reality is that safe spaces are often part and parcel of a larger mission to control freedom of expression on college and university campuses. Indeed, safe spaces will not be thought necessary if the larger mission is accomplished—they serve as an interim protection until the allegedly hurtful language, opinions, and facts are excised.

Ironically, what is really needed is the restoration of the entire college campus as a safe space for people of all perspectives. Roth contends that “safe enough” spaces are a “call for schools to promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables all students to thrive…[and] to explore differences without fear….” Amen to that, too. More than 40 years in the academy has taught me that there is exclusion and fear among some students, but seldom among those for whom safe spaces have been created. The vast majority of conservative-minded students fear reprisal and are effectively excluded by the subtle and not-so-subtle disdain of those who have come to dominate the academy. It is the rare and brave conservative student willing to challenge the orthodoxy of the academy.

As the United States Supreme Court has noted on several occasions, free speech is threatened not only by express restrictions, of which there are many in college speech codes, but also by regulations and actions with a “chilling effect.” Rather than creating safe spaces for those threatened by disagreement, colleges and universities should make every effort to ensure their entire campuses are safe for the pursuit of knowledge. We will not achieve that objective by segregating our campuses into ethnic and ideological factions.


James Huffman is professor and dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.  He has published widely on constitutional law, natural resource law and the public trust doctrine. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesHu41086899


  1. This is the key element- if the “trigger” is defined by someone else’s beliefs and/or status- say, a white male arguing against inherited racial guilt, or any male questioning whether a claimed sexual assault victim might not be completely forthcoming about events- then the safe space being provided automatically is zero-sum; i.e., Tim can’t be in a room with Bob because Bob defined Tim’s mere existence as triggering.

    The other significant factor is that treatment-based usage of safe spaces were for people with diagnosed issues and/or defined free-speech zones (manufacturing example), they were not for self-diagnosed individuals nor are the college safe spaces actual safe space zones.

    Collegiate safe spaces functionally used to reinforce the idea that being triggered is correct; therapy safe-space zones exist to create a space to develop cognitive behavioral therapy strategies. They merely are using the same words in different contexts as a name; this creates an illusion they are the same.

    Similarly, a management-production safe space was for frank and open discussion of workplace issues- it was a dedicated free speech zone, not a safety-from-speech zone. Again, it’s using the same words in a completely different way.

    Therefore, I agree with the author of this piece, and would go further to characterize Roth’s answer as solipsistic.

  2. A very clean, straightforward, no-frills, no-bullshit article. Efficient and effective.

    I like this guy.

    However, I fear, if he is still living in Portland, he will not be around much longer to write such articles.

  3. Would that include straight white men of Christian background who would like a space on campus where they can speak freely about women, gays, Muslims and African-Americans without having any of them present?

    And of course, when I say “freely”, I mean without fear of being exposed to public abuse and put at risk of expulsion from their schools for having spoken freely amongst those with common interests and shared experiences.

  4. “Roth also recounts historic threats to the physical safety of women and…”

    Then why are male bodied people allowed access to female changing areas and bathrooms? This is not about safety, it is about identifying the favored group as victim and the non-favored group as predator or oppressor. What has president Roth done to make conservative students feel welcome? President Roth is fond of the phrase “Trumpian Calamity”. How welcome does that make students who voted for Trump feel? From 2015: “this week at Wesleyan University, a top-flight school in Middletown, Conn., where the student government voted to cut funding for the 150-year-old campus newspaper after it published a conservative op-ed.”

    Throughout history students have created safe spaces in dorms, fraternities, sororities, clubs, organizations, coffee houses, ect… What is unusual now is that students demand these safe spaces be portable and created by the University. It is not so much a safe space they desire as a safety vest that prohibits the airing of contrary or disagreeable positions. President Roth frequently gives lip service to free speech but his actions speak louder than his words. Free Speech and University created safe spaces are incompatible as are free speech and free speech zones.

  5. Every space in my campus is littered with advertisements for socialist rallies year round. Wouldn’t any consistent assessment of the word “safe” as it applies to political ideas entail that students be kept “safe” from the ideology that killed 100 million people in the last century? Not even protection from discussing the ideology and history, but protection from raw advocacy and calls for organising a revolution?

    Safe spaces do not exist to enforce any rational notion of safety, even in the abstract, nebulous sense that it is currently understood. They exist to protect footsoldiers still in the delicate stages of indoctrination from information that would hamper their transition into revolutionaries.

    That is why at my last campus, students experienced complete emotional melt-down over images of aborted fetuses, succeeding in getting the pro-life students fined several thousands of dollars. Their simple, sanitized view of abortion could not survive the reality of it.

  6. The source for the newspaper losing funding is the Washington Post.

    If you have additional facts that shed more light or explain that the above story is incorrect, be redacted or withdrawn, I would be interested in reading it.

    As you referenced this is debatable but I believe safe spaces, speech zones and speech codes are incompatible with Freedom of Expression as well as adulthood. President Roth has advocated for all of the above. I’m pleased to see Wesleyan has a robust academic freedom policy. I’m also pleased that groups like FIRE exist to insure universities adhere to their stated policies. Speaking as President of the University telling students they contributed to a calamity by voting for Trump would not appear very welcoming. As I mentioned safe spaces tend to divide students into victims and oppressors, another aspect I would not consider welcoming for those who fall into the later category.

  7. I commented on Roth’s piece in the Times (it was a Times Pick!). I described the ridiculous Safe Spaces workshop at my university – the pronoun bit, the presumption of professor as ‘ally’ bit, the privilege chart, and the finger snapping and edict that I somehow field the ‘triggers’ to ‘protect’ ‘sensitive’ students. Ironically, I got ‘triggered’ because I have a fairly high threshold and can’t possibly anticipate these things. Even more to the point, being told that asking “where are you from?” is a harmful question is quite simply beyond the pale. This was presented at a later workshop, the “unconscious bias” which I pushed back on, adding that professors aren’t ‘safe’ in this environment. At the New School recently a professor was ‘investigated’ in response to a student complaint that she’d used the N-word while quoting James Baldwin. (Welcome to the Age of No Context!)

    My comment received the following condescending response: Asking ‘where are you from?’ of a POC assumes that brown people do not ‘belong’ in the United States. So not asking keeps those students ‘safe’ from feeling that they do not belong.

    I responded that white people ask this of other white people all the time. I grew up in a mostly white suburb. What are you? Was a common question. Are we not ‘a nation of immigrants?’ Therefore, we are all ‘really’ from somewhere else. Anyone who believes that a white person asking where a brown person is from is somehow being racist and telling that person that they don’t ‘belong’ is, quite simply, an asshole.

    I ended my response by asking how ‘safe’ interactions with persons of color are, if every question is being gauged for taints of racism.

  8. The question is a good way to get someone to tell their story. What better way to begin to know someone? I have yet to encounter someone who is offended by the inquiry. To escape the PC mob we will have to rephrase the question, that is until the new phrasing is also ruled out of bounds. Is the real purpose of the PC crowd to keep us separated from one another and at each others throats? Divide and conquer?

  9. Middle class white liberals who were born in the US are the most likely to be offended, as self-appointed protectors of people of color.

  10. What a bunch of thin skinned unfriendly people you are posting from. Instead of a bunch of hostile “liberals” telling everyone “what you’re really asking when …” why not take the trouble of asking them their intent. Ten years ago I saw the career of an older man, a capable stage hand at our university, ruined simply because he used the term “oriental”. He hadn’t keep up with the latest PC speak.

    People are becoming exhausted with the increasing list of banned words, phrases and questions that are continually being added. This is not increasing peace between people but is increasing the fear of being misrepresented and this leads to resentment.

    Not everyone may be like you and can choose their words carefully so as not to offend the PC gods, not everyone may have the capability and even the most intelligent and eloquent can be quite clumsy at times. If you choose to take an honest question or statement the wrong way, one that is spoken simply in an attempt to converse and build relationship or understanding, then that is on you and not me.

  11. Your story does not support the PC practice of banning “where are you from”, it is just an example of rudeness. Are we going to ban all rudeness or only if it is done by the wrong people? Only some types of rudeness are banned, only when they are identified by the left?
    Instead of promoting a concept of victimhood and taking offense why not teach turning the other cheek, strength of character, and a friendly response turns away wrath. This idea of taking offense is a cheap fraud masquerading as good.

  12. Dude, I get it. You hate Republicans and you want other people to hate them too. You talk about how this isn’t a “both sides” issue. While I’m not that big into black/white thinking and I have zero dedication to any party, I figure there are two sides. One, people who want to force other people to think and speak a certain way and those who would rather think and speak as they damn well please. I’m in the latter camp. Spout your propaganda, and use bold print (since that makes it really profound) but don’t expect me to buy into it.

  13. What a traumatic experience. It was stunning and brave you to share that with us.

  14. Yes it can. And I’m sure it is. I’m also sure that everybody has experienced rudeness. Almost everyone is an asshole some of the time. It strains credulity to think every ssdhole is a racist.

  15. I don’t think anyone is arguing this point. Ban a specific question question just because some people have asked it with bad intent? Where does this stop?

    Look! Squirrell!

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