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Safe Spaces and First Amendment Rights: Do Safe Spaces Belong on College Campuses?

JURIST Guest Columnist Fuad Rafidi of Valparaiso University School of Law, Class of 2018, discusses safe spaces on college campuses...


Do safe places belong on college campuses? On November 22, 2016, Yue Zhang wrote a critical piece about colleges not having safe spaces. Yue personally believes safe spaces only spoils kids and makes them more fragile. Although there might be some basis on Yue's conclusion, that is not the purpose of safe spaces. The purpose of safe spaces is to protect college students and listeners from sensitive topics like sexual assault. Colleges should have an area where students can get away if they need to. The best example is when a college brings a speaker about sexual assault. In March 2015, Brown University in Rhode Island brought speakers to speak about sexual assault. The safe spaces initial purpose was to protect students or listeners from being traumatized of past memories. This is a laudable purpose and an important reason to force universities to have safe spaces. These types of topics affect the students and leaves them at a disadvantage because past memories impact on how well these students perform in school. Also, topics like sexual assault place students at risk of mental disorders like depression. It is important to protect the universities' free speech, but it is also important to protect the students' health and safety.

In August 2016, Rae Pickett wrote an article about how all universities should protect the students' right to feel safe. That article was based on the University of Chicago and the decision to eliminate safe spaces from the college campus. This decision was based on the theory that students can leave on their own freedom. However, maybe there are students who want to listen to a topic, but the topic takes a mental toll on the students. If safe spaces are eliminated from the college campus, that mental toll on the students would discourage the students from attending similar topics in the future. According to Clemson University's 2013 "Status of Bullying in School" report, 160,000 children are bullied every day and 31 percent are multiracial. When an African American compares themselves to white peers, self-esteem levels drop. Thus, safe spaces would help empower students or any listener to speak up on the topic in the future. Self-esteem is important when attending university held speakers because confidence helps build arguments and knowledge on a particular topic. Safe spaces would help build that self-esteem.

According to Clifford Maloney Jr., colleges are attacked by a plethora of free speech restrictions. For example, men at the University of Delaware were halted by campus police for their activities of rolling an inflated free speech ball around campus. Furthermore, a Young Americans for Liberty leader at Fairmont State University in West Virginia was confronted by security when he attempted to speak with other students about the ideas he believes in.

Yes, freedom of speech is a right that is protected by our Constitution. The freedom of speech clause states that Congress shall not abridge the freedom of speech. The freedom of speech is a fundamental right that is critical to our society. It is critical because it is our society's way of giving different viewpoints in our political, social, educational and community status. According to Maloney, debates are discussions between people which they express different viewpoints. Yes, this is the very fundamental right our Constitution is designed to protect. College campuses should be more open to allow speakers to speak their minds. The Supreme Court has already limited what types of speech is not protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. This type of speech involves: fighting words, obscene or criminal solicitation. As long as the speech used in the event is protected speech, Maloney argues that students should be allowed to participate in an open free market of ideas.

We must be open to topics, but not all topics are meant to be heard in a public setting. Freedom of speech is limited to a reasonable time, place and manner. The manner must not promote threats amongst each other to encourage violence. Also, the manner is not to discourage another person from giving a different perspective on a particular topic. Even in class discussions about a particular topic, these topics may take a mental toll on students. Universities should help promote the health and safety of the students because a healthy and safe student helps promote confidence and encourages that student to give different perspective to topics. College campuses are not forums meant to incite war amongst its students, it is a forum meant to educate. Rolling an inflated free speech ball around college would be something that students should be allowed to do. In fact, it is a new, creative way to promoting free speech no one else would have thought about. However, that does not mean a college should not provide safe spaces because these safe spaces would help empower students to speak up by providing them space and time until these students are ready to give their opinion and educate themselves on a topic.

The truth is, freedom of speech has two sides and whichever side you fall on, you may need a place to get away. Colleges should not ban students from expressing themselves, but colleges should have an area where students can get away if they need to. The best example is when a college brings a speaker about sexual assault or bullying. Now, invoking safety as an excuse to ban opposing perspectives is counterproductive. However, sexual assault is an offense that women are sensitive to. Students on college campuses all have different backgrounds and experiences. Just because one student has a right to hear and learn from a view, such as sexual assault, does not mean no student needs to seek a place of safety. This is the whole purpose of safe places. Safe spaces are supposed to be places where students seek care.

Safe places are useful, but not all students are entitled to have safe spaces. Students may be taking advantage of safe spaces, but as the University of Chicago had mentioned, students have the right to get away from the topic and be free from uninvited ideas. However, this does not mean campuses should not provide safe spaces. Instead, campuses should be encouraged to have them because safe spaces help vulnerable students and empowers them to speak up on particular topics and protects their health and safety from any mental tolls.

Fuad Rafidi is a second year law student at Valparaiso University School of Law. He is a member of the Trial Court and Moot Court teams and was a 1L Student Board Association representative.

Suggested citation: Fuad Rafidi, Safe Spaces and First Amendment Rights: Do Safe Spaces Belong on College Campuses?, JURIST - Dateline, Dec. 1, 2016, Fuad_Rafidi_safe_college


This article was prepared for publication by Alix Ware, an assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.
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