Should Hunter College be a ‘safe space’?

In the face of controversy and outrage, should Hunter and other colleges play it safe?

If you’ve paid any attention to the news, social media or even South Park lately, you’ve probably heard the phrase “safe space” thrown around.

Some colleges, like Penn, have already established themselves as “safe spaces”, while others are arguing that we should ban words like “bossy” that could have a negative impact on someone.

The protests at Yale and Mizzou largely focused on making the schools “safe spaces” in the face of racial tensions and racist actions by other students. Events like these have left many asking “Should we aim to make colleges safe spaces?” “Should Hunter be a safe space?”.

When I talk about Hunter in political circles, many outsiders describe us as a “crazy liberal school” because of our high rate of political activism. We are a school that houses a lot of politically minded and forward thinking students, all with their own unique ideologies.

Now this is the part where I’m going to surprise/lose about half of you. While I am a liberal – a filthy liberal so far left I make Bernie Sanders look moderate – I’m against the idea of “safe spaces”, and against the actions of these protesters at Yale and Mizzou. For those of you that have stuck with me, let me explain. I am a liberal in the sense that I am always in favor of people exercising personal freedoms, regardless of whether or not I agree with them. Even when they’re racist, homophobic or sexist.

It is for this reason that colleges cannot be so-called “safe spaces”— they must be intellectual spaces first and foremost. If we start banning speech for being “offensive” or hurting people’s feelings, then where do we draw the line? Freedom of speech doesn’t exist to protect agreeable speech; that type of speech doesn’t need protection.

The only exception to freedom of speech is when the speech is directly intended to incite unnecessary panic or harm (the classic “Don’t shout fire in a crowded theater” argument). Many have tried to justify the creation of “safe spaces” by arguing that racist or ignorant speech could incite violence against certain sects of the student population. This argument has no basis in reality. If we apply this argument to someone saying “I hate republicans – they’re dangerous and should all be kicked out of this country,” then anything of the sort could be painted as trying to incite violence against a specific group of people. This is the the main problem with establishing “safe spaces”: once established, any argument can be easily dismissed as offensive, and effectively silenced.

The argument seems to really boil down to the power of words and the power behind words. An argument that many protesters seem to be making is that a lot of this hate speech is directed by those who are in power at those who are not. They argue that because of this imbalance these words can incite violence. In order to debunk this argument, let’s look at two statements.

“I hate lawyers, all lawyers should die”


“I hate criminals, all criminals should die”

Both suggest the same thing: violence against a group of people, with both statements being equally forceful in their word choices. Both should be treated the same, no? Even though one group clearly has more power than the other, both statements are inciting violence against a large diverse group of people based on one single attribute. The statement makes no exception for the wide range of world views and beliefs that individuals falling under each group might have; it just lumps them both into homogeneous groups. So then, why is it that racial slurs against black people and other “under-privileged” groups are viewed by many protesters as “calls for violence” while other protesters in Dartmouth felt it was okay to use phrases such as “Fuck you, you filthy white fucks” while protesting in a library?

This is where the argument falls apart. When it comes to the definition of words, the speaker is irrelevant. This is where both sides of this argument seem to be in profound and unbudging disagreement, and it doesn’t seem like anything can be done to resolve this issue.

Here’s my case: If you issue a bomb threat against a Catholic School, the police are going to take it just as seriously, regardless of which religion you identify with. Our generation seems to have a problem separating the argument and the words from the speaker. On online social justice blogs and sites, it’s not uncommon to see arguments completely dismissed based on the race, gender or sexual orientation of the speaker. If we want to live in a truly equal society, we must treat each speaker’s words equally regardless of any attributes of the speaker. Should a woman’s argument be treated differently than a man’s? Not if we truly want equality.  By that logic of equality for all arguments: if using racial slurs can be treated as a way of inciting violence, then the Dartmouth protesters should be in jail.

Do I think the protesters calling white people “filthy” is disgusting and racist? Yes.

Do I think it should be illegal? No.

There are certainly a lot of race-related issues facing college students today, nobody is denying that. But we should reexamine the way we deal with these issues. Do we want to do so by silencing  people, spitting, and shouting, or would we rather have a civil conversation about what is obviously an important issue?

By all means, we should protest and stand up to injustice. I’ve attended several peaceful and dignified protests in my time at Hunter. Nobody should have to choose between their safety and getting an education – and I in no way endorse people issuing threats against students, but we need to protest while behaving like adults, not screaming like children. We need to do so without calling for the heads of those who disagree. We need to have clear, reasonable demands. And most importantly, we need do so without disrupting the learning process.

It is for this reason that we need to keep colleges as free and open intellectual spaces, not silence people for having controversial opinions. You can’t allow one view and not allow the other. We live in one of the most diverse and cultured cities in the world, and people are bound to say things you won’t like. The real world surely isn’t a safe space and we must accept that as fact if we’re ever going to make a difference. Let’s keep colleges as open intellectual spaces so that we can be prepared to take the world head on and not be afraid when we get hate thrown our way.

Please direct all hate mail to:

The Office of Rick Santorum
PO Box 238
Verona, PA  15147

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