Free to Hate? Safe Spaces in American Politics.

Author:Munger, Michael C.

Academic freedom is not one of the five First Amendment freedoms. (If it matters, very few Americans can name more than one of these five--56 percent do manage to remember that "speech" is protected, according to the Freedom Forum, but that's it, and 40 percent of Americans can't name even one freedom the First Amendment guarantees [Freedom Forum, The State of the First Amendment: 2018, June 2018, at].) To understand the nature of academic freedom, freedom of association, and freedom of speech, we have to hark back to the reason these freedoms are conferred and protected in the first place.

Two new books, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018) by Keith Whittington and Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) by Nadine Strossen, take up different aspects of this problem. Whittington--a professor at Princeton--is concerned mostly with obligations and responsibilities of universities. Strossen--a longtime president of the American Civil Liberties Union, back before it largely abandoned the First Amendment--addresses broader problems of speech and social media. Each book is timely and insightful; together, they constitute a blueprint for recapturing the central role that free expression and association should have in policy and legal analysis.

In this review essay, I first examine some background on "safe spaces" and the nature of academic freedom and then address Whittington's view of the importance of protecting ideas and viewpoint diversity on campus. Then I broaden the focus to take a look at some larger problems and consider Strossen's grim optimism about the eternal values of free expression and how they are under threat.

Background: Safe Spaces and the Nature of Academic Freedom

There's a controversial, core truth, and we should just get it out of the way. Academic freedom requires safe spaces. The notion of a university entails a strong presumption that any bona fide group can associate in its own space and choose what it wants to hear. That raises several thorny issues, of course. First, what is a bona fide group? What groups, with what sorts of goals, will be certified and allowed to spend money? This access is often controlled by capricious student-government units, full of power-mad ideologues or rent seekers jealously guarding their own control over resources. Discretionary group certification is fraught with danger.

Second, even if a group is constituted, university administrations have set themselves up as gatekeepers, able to withhold room access or security for speakers or events. The requirements are minimal: a door that closes, a microphone, and sufficient security to exclude people who are not members of the group. But those things are not guaranteed, and such tacit endorsement requirements corrode academic freedom. More than ten years ago an Evan Maloney documentary called Indoctrinate [7(2007; yes, I was in it; you can watch it at showed a prescient understanding of this tendency, which has since exploded into full-fledged repression.

To fulfill their purpose, universities must authorize "safe spaces" for selective, exclusive groups, whether the selection principle is religious (you have to believe in order to belong) or social (fraternities and sororities get to invite some students and not others to participate). Freedom of association is the key to understanding academic freedom. And academic freedom, not freedom of speech, is the bedrock principle of universities and colleges.

Third and perhaps most dangerous, is the tendency to see the affording of a single, global "safe space" as the first task of the university. Groups that have ever)' right to use their private safe space are tempted to annex the entire university, denying, disinviting, or disrupting presentations by speakers invited by other groups. That is a violation of academic freedom. If someone else is saying something you disagree with, there are two remedies: (1) don't go to the event; and/or (2) organize your own event to offer an alternative or corrective perspective.

Some universities have blocked this tendency to hijack academic discourse. Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, sent a letter to all first-year students decrying not just safe spaces themselves but also the impulse that leads some students to want safe spaces in the first place. As Zimmer later put it, "Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments." "Having one's assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society" (Robert J. Zimmer, "A Crucible for Confronting Ideas," University of Chicago Magazine, Fall 2016, at

In a marvelous discussion of the Chicago policy, activist and commentator Anthony Kapel ("Van") Jones showed that he understands academic freedom. The entire video (Van Jones' Excellent Metaphors about the Dangers of Ideological Safety, March 2, 2017, at is worth watching, but the short message is this: In the gym, there are weights. They are heavy, and it takes work and training to learn to move them. Classrooms and lectures should be no different.

There are two ideas about safe spaces. One is a very good idea, and one is a terrible idea. [The good idea is] being physically safe on campus, not being subjected to sexual harassment and physical abuse. But there is another view that is now ascendant.... It's a horrible view, which is that "I need to be safe ideologically, I need to be safe emotionally, I just need to feel good all the time. And if someone else says something that I don't like, that is a problem for everyone else, including the administration." I think that's a terrible idea for the following reason: I don't want you to be safe ideologically. I don't want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That's...

To continue reading