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Free Speech, Safe Spaces and Academic Freedom

Fall is here and students are back in the classroom and free speech is back on the agenda.

Just a few weeks in and already the hottest topic on campuses across America is free speech. In particular, my alma mater - the University of California, Berkeley (UCBerkeley) - is at the heart of the controversy to bring 'conservative' speakers to campus in what is being billed as Free Speech Week. It can either be seen as ironic, or a full circle revisit, that UC Berkeley is in this place, given its role in creating the free speech movement which grew out of a series of protests during the 1964-1965 academic year. It is now focused on right-wing ideas while back then it was focused on the protest speech of the left. It was as a place for radical ideas that I got to know most about UC Berkeley as a young girl growing up in Jamaica, and one of the primary reasons I chose to attend. The flood of articles that focus on the issue of free speech in the academy almost seems reminiscent of the McCarthy era, when the smallest of infractions against what McCarthy considered to be 'American' values could ruin one's career on campus, in Hollywood and in society writ large.  (For further exploration on how speaking about politics at your job can get you fired click here).

Academic Freedom and Free Speech
In a document titled, Academic Freedom: What it is, what it isn't and how to tell the difference (John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, 2009), academic freedom was defined as 'the freedom of scholars to pursue the truth in a manner consistent with professional standards of inquiry' (p.4). They note that as a first amendment right it applies only to scholars in public institutions because it protects against "illegitimate governmental action or state law". The author of the document further states that though the Supreme Court supports the idea of academic freedom it has not established clear criteria for its application, and that due to a 2006 ruling it has allowed lower courts to rule in favor of schools that seek to restrict faculty speech that is within the execution of official duties.

As a member of the academy I find it abhorrent that anyone would want to stifle the discussion of ideas in universities. This violates the principle of academic freedom, beyond the legal protections provided by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Furthermore, limiting 'exposure' of students to only ideas that are seen as 'acceptable' in a particular context of time and space, supports an environment of censorship that also limits the learning of students. University is also a place where people learn to explore ideas and to propose ideas based on evidence and to go beyond to propose ideas that have yet to be tested. Creativity, innovation, exploration, critical thinking and learning rules of argument using evidence, are essential skills that define the university classroom experience.

I consider myself a 'radical free-speecher' in that I don't believe that any speech should be stifled. (Okay, I agree that you shouldn't yell fire in a crowded room but...). As a black woman, I've been called naive, stupid, a race/gender/queer denier etc because I believe that regardless of how someone may feel or think about me, they have the right to say so in a public forum. I believe that if ideas related to justice, peace, love etc cannot prevail in the face of discrimination, hate or 'alternative truth', then what good are they?

My teaching load has included courses on race, ethnicity, class and gender. I've also taught courses on social policy. These courses inherently invite a range of opinions and experiences and ideas about what the world is, what it should be, and what it will become. Because students are usually afraid to 'offend', it is often a challenge to get students to be intellectually brave and to use their imagination to propose innovative or radical ideas, whether on the left or right.

When I was a graduate student, the idea of tenure was sold to me as a way to protect free speech in academia. The logic being that if one had a job for life then they would feel free to put forth controversial ideas without the fear of losing their livelihood. However, that is no longer true. Several professors at all levels have lost their jobs in the past few years because their ideas were 'offensive' or inaccurate. In 2015, Professor John McAdams was stripped of tenure by Marquette University because of what he wrote in a blogpost. In 2017, Lars Maischak, an adjunct professor in history at California State University in Fresno, was removed from his teaching assignment because of a tweet in which he declared 'Trump must hang'. Kevin Allred, an adjunct professor at Montclair State U. and Rutgers U. had his course assignments repealed. And in 2014, Professor Steven Salaita - a Palestinian American - lost a job offer from the University of Illinois because of tweets he made about the state of Israel. There are many more examples that can be found by simply doing a Google search of 'professors who lost jobs because of controversial ideas'.

The response to this suffocation of 'controversial' ideas has led to the creation of several organizations that were formed to protect free speech in the ivory towers. These organizations include Academics for Academic Freedom - a UK organization founded in 2006 that creates a list called 'Free Speech University Rankings', California Scholars for Academic Freedom, and the Scholars at Risk Network. It also includes the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which was founded in 1915, and states that its primary goal is the protection of academic freedom.

Snowflakes and Safe Spaces
The notion of 'safe spaces' has evolved to the point where students demand to be 'warned' about ideas that may 'trigger' them. The backlash has been to call this generation 'snowflakes' - who are easily hurt and traumatized by anything that challenges their sense of self and identity. So widely has become the use of the term 'snowflake' that it has evolved from describing the 'hypersensitivity' of the millennial generation to having The Guardian newspaper declare it, 'the defining insult of 2016'.

Dictionary definitions of a 'safe space'  generally agree that it is a place where 'a person or category of person can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm'. Granted, noone wants to be in a classroom where people are mistreated, the notion that a university classroom will have non-offending speech is asking a lot of professors to be able to assess, monitor and silence that which may constitute 'emotional harm'.

Being 'triggered' is at the heart of the definition of what it means to be a 'snowflake'. In the context of 'safe spaces' it is defined as an act that causes a 'negative emotional response' such as panic, fear, flashbacks etc. As a social work professor, it would be practically impossible to teach classes that do not create a 'negative emotional reaction' given the nature of our work with marginalized, disadvantaged and populations traumatized by violence, abuse, neglect, illness, war etc. The expectation of a 'trigger warning' when writing or speaking about such topics would create an untenable classroom environment. In the Fall 2017 edition of California Magazine - UC Berkeley's Alumni publication - Berkeley's incoming chancellor, Carol T. Christ suggested that, "Ultimately, the safe space is inside yourself and you have to build that kind of sturdiness for self-worth where you can hear hurtful things and feel assured in your own center that they're wrong". Acknowledging the complicated nature of the topic she suggests that it is one to be explored as a community to show that people can have respectful conversations even though they may disagree.

Interestingly, the campus reactions to the post-2016 presidential election revealed that academics can also be 'snowflakes' if their negative emotional response can be taken as evidence. Many campuses had faculty groups where people talked about feeling traumatized - basically 'triggered' - by the election and what it meant for the future of the country. A lot of time and effort was spent on how to make classrooms safe spaces for conservatives as students wrote private letters to deans and open letters to the public about feeling that conservative voices were unwanted on campus as a backlash to the election outcome.

Diversity and the Future of Academic Freedom and Free Speech on Campus
Ultimately, the heart of the issue is the willingness to listen to ideas that differ from one's own and be able to learn not only about another way of thinking but also to clarify one's own stance on an issue. The desire to live in an echo chamber where everyone agrees with you means there is no room for learning about difference. A recent study by John Villasenor - a UCLA professor and senior fellow at a Brookings Institution - on college students' perception of free speech on campus revealed a lack of knowledge about First Amendment rights (too many don't know that hate speech is protected) and an intolerance for voices that radically divert from their own.

It is ironic that often the very people - liberals and lefties - who push for diversity on campus have decided to stifle diversity of viewpoints with the premise that only their ideas warrant expression and opposing voices and opinions should not be heard. Yes, the world has been dominated with a particular perspective connected to whiteness and maleness and wealth and power, but dissent need not silence these voices in order for alternative ones to be heard. If there is no room on campus for divergent thought, extremes in ideology, critical thinking and intellectual exploration, then the notion that universities are a place for expanding one's mind will no longer exist.

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