Safe spaces on American college campuses challenge the freedom of speech

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Deanna Hurlbert, director of the LGBT Resource Center at Michigan State University, in her office.

Rianna Middleton

Deanna Hurlbert, director of the LGBT Resource Center at Michigan State University, in her office.

Joshua Laske, a graduate student studying veterinary medicine at Michigan State University, said that having a safe space growing up would have helped him feel comfortable with his sexuality earlier in his life. As an undergraduate student, Joshua found refuge at Spiral, a gay bar in Lansing.

“I always knew I had somewhere to go where I could completely be myself without fear,” Laske said. “Today, we live in a world where it’s acceptable for people to make others feel unsafe. Having zones where people can get away from that is important for their physical and mental well-being.”

There is a debate on American college campuses about the necessity and constitutionality of safe spaces for students. A safe space is a place where people can go where they will not be harassed by others.

Laske said he has been verbally attacked and physically threatened by violence in East Lansing due to his sexuality.

“I think topics, especially xenophobia, racism and homophobia, are becoming more prevalent due to the current political climate,” Laske said. “It has become more acceptable to say hateful things about minorities.”

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Deanna Hurlbert, director of the LGBT Resource Center at Michigan State University, said that the university has moved away from using the language of safe spaces.

“In an educational environment, whether in higher education or in K-12, I believe that rather than declaring a safe space for particular populations or identities, the objective should be that the place itself should entirely be safe,” Hurlbert said. “The onus is on the institution to be safe, not on the individual to find a safe space.”

Nate Strauss, Jewish student life coordinator at the Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center, said safe zones do not infringe on students’ rights to free speech.

“A student does not have to go into a safe zone if they do not want to,” Strauss said. “There are plenty of places and ways to say what you want without directly attacking someone.”

Kevin Saunders, a professor of law and the Charles Clarke Chair in Constitutional Law at Michigan State University, said the constitutionality of safe zones depends on if the space is designated as a public forum.

“Public forums are generally, in a city for example, the sidewalks, the public parks, that kind of thing,” Saunders said. “If you are trying to regulate speech in those places, you have to meet what’s called the time, place and manner test. If it is not a public forum at all, the regulations just have to be reasonable.”

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Erica Schmittdiel, advocacy coordinator at the Michigan State University Safe Place Relationship Violence and Stalking Program, said that implementing safe zones on campus would be a good thing. She said she disagrees with people who say college students are too sensitive and do not need to be protected from offensive speech.

“If people choose to say racist, sexist and homophobic things, to some extent, that is protected by the First Amendment,” Schmittdiel said. “But I also think that I have a right, and other people also have a right, to not hear those things and to be in a place where they can be reasonably reassured that kind of hateful talk is not going to be in their presence.”

According to Strauss, college students are particularly vulnerable to offensive speech.

“Words are very powerful,” Strauss said. “They can have very strong and negative impacts on people, especially college students. While people are learning and developing and finding their own way of life here, they do not need to be constantly attacked or harmed.”

Adar Rubin, senior advertising major at Michigan State University, working on homework in the Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center.

Rianna Middleton

Adar Rubin, senior advertising major at Michigan State University, working on homework in the Lester & Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center.

Adar Rubin, senior advertising major at Michigan State University, said safe spaces don’t create progress.

“I think they’re pathetic, in all honesty,” Rubin said. “College is about broadening out your horizons, opening up your mind to new perspectives and seeing the world through other people’s eyes. That’s what I did.”

Rubin said he has been harassed over his religion.

“I’m an Israeli and I’ve talked to people who wish that my people, my family, were blown right off the map,” Rubin said. “That’s OK. It’s horrible that they have these intentions, but that’s the real world. People are raised in different backgrounds.”

According to Strauss, Hillel serves as a safe space for Michigan State University students.

“I think we have a certain sense of obligation to the students we work with to really provide a safe space,” Strauss said. “We should really be focusing on all types of students, all backgrounds and identities. It’s not just that we are here to provide a safe space for Jewish students.”

Strauss, who served as a residential assistant at the university for several years, said places such as the Office for Cultural and Academic Transitions, the Michigan State University Counseling Center and the Department of Student Life serve as informal safe zones for students. He said if the university created official safe zones on campus, they would not necessarily need to be monitored constantly, because they would naturally enforce themselves.

According to Hurlbert, the problem with declaring a space safe is the message that it sends to students.

“We don’t ever want students here to feel like they’re not welcome anywhere else,” Hurlbert said. “Part of it is that declaring a space as safe is a false promise. What one person feels is safe, another will not.”