One college is telling new students: don’t expect any “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces”

At a time when free speech has been under attack on our college campuses in so many ways, one university is telling incoming freshmen that it won’t be following down the same path. That the school is where I earned my law degree, the University of Chicago, just makes the story that much better. This is one proud alum.

Colleges are supposed to be places where ideas can be examined and debated, where all sides can join the fray – and may the best ideas win. They’re also a place where some silly or trendy notions can take hold.

That’s just fine, if you believe in the free market of ideas. Too many, if the last few years are an indication, do not. We’ve seen activists demand “safe spaces” on campus and “trigger warnings” before sensitive (and not-so-sensitive) topics are raised.

More distressingly, we’ve seen more instances of groups trying to get certain speakers barred from campus, or shouting down speakers attempting to share their viewpoint.

That’s why the letter from Chicago dean Jay Ellison is so refreshing to read. Chicago has a reputation for fiercely defending free speech and free academic inquiry (with the letter, freshmen also received the book Academic Freedom and the Modern University: The Experience of the University of Chicago, and the university maintains a site). Ellison’s letter shows, the university aims to buck the unfortunate trends.

That the Chicago letter is so direct, when much academic writing can be so opaque, is part of what make it refreshing. Ellison told students:

“Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship…You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

Then came the section that has garnered so much attention:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

These issues on campuses, including criticisms of a coddled generation, are part and parcel of the larger debate in this country over political correctness. Sticking up for free speech needn’t mean ignoring the need for respect and tolerance. Indeed, those values are even more important in a free-wheeling, pro-First Amendment environment.

Respect and tolerance cannot be used as excuses to shut out some voices or uphold restrictive speech rules, however. Chicago’s history and its current stance stand wonderfully athwart these assaults on free speech. Reading the reasoning of campus critics of the letter, one can’t help but wonder if the expressed concerns aren’t based mostly on protecting funding for the little fiefdoms that inevitably spring up on campuses.

Respect for free, vigorous speech is an issue that extends far beyond academia. The vital Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes that Chicago earned the group’s “highest, ‘green light’ rating by abolishing its speech codes in cooperation with FIRE so that its policies fully respect student and faculty free expression rights.” If only more universities would do the same – free speech starts on our campuses.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.