Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions set off controversy with his address to Georgetown University law students warning that free speech is under attack on college campuses. He lamented the loss of “academic freedom” and criticized universities for creating a “shelter for fragile egos.”
The notion that college policies are hostile to the free exchange of ideas has gradually seeped into mainstream opinion. The so-called “free speech crisis” is a conservative fabrication, mistaking the need for safe spaces for a blatant attack against free academic discourse. It is an attempt to undermine the validity of modern universities because, in the era of Donald Trump, conservative ideas struggle to thrive there.
Sessions’ statement is a retaliation for the collapse of the conservative identity on college campuses. By portraying safe spaces and free speech as fundamentally opposed, conservatives are pushing to reclaim their voices in a space where they are losing political ground.
There are demographic reasons for safe spaces in American universities. Hamilton’s student body, for example, is approximately 70 percent white. In institutions where the voices of the majority have historically been dominant, the lingering effects of oppression can have a severe impact on how students perform in a classroom setting. Safe spaces offer students a place to heal—to reclaim power they may not have in their daily lives, and share that empowerment with others in a positive way.
These spaces are not a threat to free speech on campus. They are merely part of an institutional promise to minority students that their voices are valued despite the ways they have been disadvantaged.
The backlash against safe spaces reveals that this is not a debate about free speech. It is a debate about acceptable speech.
The kind of rhetoric that pushes marginalized students to seek out safe spaces is not open-minded, friendly political discourse. It is hate speech. Universities have the right to create their own internal rules about the kinds of dialogue that are acceptable in a classroom setting. It is unreasonable to expect that ideas rooted in social oppression can be put forward without negative moral evaluations being made of them.
As much as they condemn safe spaces on campus, conservative groups are working just as hard to maintain their own intellectual safe spaces. Neither side is advocating for or against free speech—it is an ideological power struggle over which voices should be privileged in the public sphere.
Conservatives are struggling to retain their social identity in light of their rapidly slipping power on campuses. It is the backlash of those who are losing their social authority and struggling against the gradual erosion of their privilege. By exploiting the principles of the First Amendment and depicting any challenge to their ideologies as speech suppression, conservatives are attempting to flip the script and ensure their survival in a political climate where they are losing influence.
This does not to mean that all conservatives hold prejudiced views, but that traditionally conservative ideas tend to cater toward those who have enjoyed the privilege of being able to ignore who has advantage and disadvantage, both culturally and politically.
The rise of safe spaces and protests on college campuses does not represent an opposition to free speech. Those who have been historically sidelined from political discussion are now coming forward to make a statement: The rhetoric that justified their exclusion and oppression is no longer acceptable in the realm of academic debate. Minorities are seizing the opportunity to learn in an environment free of hate speech—and the right to defend their humanity and place in society.
Protecting safe spaces against the conservative free-speech debate is vital if we hope to keep higher education accessible for students of all identities. College campuses have a responsibility to be clear about their values: Bigotry is unacceptable, and students’ human rights should never be up for debate. Colleges should be leading the way forward—not backward.