Yes, Campuses Should Be Safe Spaces — for Debate

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 31, 2016

The cry of college students demanding "safe spaces" to protect themselves from speech that could harm their sensitivities doesn’t confound me. I secretly wished for a safe space myself during my first year of teaching.

In my case, the expression I wanted to be shielded from wasn’t being shouted at me on the campus quad or discussed in my classroom. It was on Twitter.

As a digital-journalism professor, I teach students how to make use of social media for reporting and news delivery. But I made a bad call the first time I instructed my class to use Twitter.

Naïvely, I agreed to allow students to use their existing Twitter accounts for assignments, only to realize later that full access to my students’ Twitter feeds meant I wasn’t just seeing what they posted for class. I now had unfiltered exposure to everything they shared.

For most young people in college, social media is a free-speech playground. It’s where they vent, opine, joke, seek acknowledgment, and interact constantly with their friends. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat augment the bars, cafes, and other informal public gathering spaces that previous generations had to visit to stay connected to their communities.

Most of my students’ tweets that semester were benign, even boring. But there was one male student who seemed to spend a lot of time at a popular campus bar and used his Twitter account to rate every female within view, explaining sometimes in graphic detail what he would like to do to the woman sexually.

Did he think he was funny? Did he forget that he had given me — his female professor — his Twitter handle? I found his posts beyond distasteful. They were vulgar and somewhat frightening. When the student came to class the next week, I didn’t know what to do. He was a good student. In person he was friendly and polite. But what was he really thinking? Was he going to tweet something obscene about the female students in my class? Or about me?

As the semester passed and my exposure to students’ tweets continued, I started to feel as if I was working in a hostile environment. I wanted a safe space. But no matter how icky and uncivilized, I knew this student’s lewd online speech was protected by the First Amendment.

Worse, I never exercised my own right to call out the student for his misogynistic postings. I admit that, as a new professor, I was about as intimidated as a college freshman by the discomfort such a conversation would have caused. The only person I told was his academic adviser, hoping my more experienced colleague would do something about it.

My unwillingness to engage in an uncomfortable discussion may have protected my emotional well-being in the moment, but it did nothing to fix the problem in the long run.

I should have used the student’s online speech and my feelings of offense as a teachable moment. We could have had a lively debate about the effect of "digital catcalling" on the campus community and his own reputation.

The fact is, the social-media arena, where 89 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds spend so much of their time, is often the antithesis of a "safe space." Just read some of Donald J. Trump’s tweets or log onto Yik Yak. Social-media culture rewards snark. It encourages public shaming and online mobs. It can be an algorithmic echo chamber. It flows with people’s microaggressions, and their straight-up aggression.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that there are American college students who don’t know what civility in public discourse looks like. They’ve been raised in a polarized political and media climate, and reared on the anonymity and lack of accountability of unlimited Internet speech.

My college students may speak freely on social media, but many don’t yet have a grasp of the nuances of the right to freedom of speech. A recent survey by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale found that almost one-third of college students can’t cite the amendment that deals with free speech.

I worry that my college students have grown so conditioned to toxic online discourse that they’ve joined in, or else their sensitivities are being so damaged by it that it’s fueling their cry for "safe spaces" in the real world.

In a democracy (or at a public land-grant university) that protects freedom of expression, there are still two options when encountering speech we find offensive: Filter out the speech with a "safe space" or counter it with robust speech of our own. What college needs to be is a hybrid of those two options — it should be a safe space for debate.

Young people are unlikely to learn how to engage in civil public discourse from their social-media interactions. If civility requires emotional maturity, then students have to practice. And college educators like me need to do a better job of embracing that critical role of debate facilitator and debate moderator.

Lectures by professors and campus protests rightly focus attention on important topics, but both are inherently one-sided. College students also need thoughtful opportunities to participate in structured debates outside their filter bubbles, so they can practice listening to and arguing dissenting points of view.

I may not be able to control what my students post publicly online, but I can facilitate safe, teachable moments for them to think critically about what they are saying.

Marie K. Shanahan is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.