Research Stories

Safe Space vs Free Speech?

Engaging in difficult conversations to find new approaches to controversial issues

Leah Shafer
May 18, 2016
Safe Space vs Free Speech? (Illustration: Freepik)

Can schools encourage thoughtful dialogue about controversial issues?

As protests have erupted this year at colleges across the country, the concepts of “safe space” and “free speech” have often seemed at odds. If students call for their campus to be a safe space — a place where racist, sexist, and any kind of discriminatory words and actions are not tolerated — are they infringing on the First Amendment rights of other students, faculty, and staff to say and do as they are legally allowed?

In the words of three scholars who think a lot about the cultural, ethical, and moral lives of universities: It’s complicated. But it is possible to foster safe spaces and free speech — and for schools at every level to use both to address some of the most morally pressing issues of our times.

The Barriers to Conversation

“What college students want is to support cross-racial dialogue in an authentic, honest, but also risky way,” said sociologist Natasha Kumar Warikoo in a recent panel discussion at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). But that kind of rich dialogue can’t be conjured instantly.

Many students arrive simply unequipped to have these tough conversations. Both in civics lessons and in everyday interactions, K–12 schools “don’t treat free speech as the preeminent protected right that it is,” said legal scholar Catherine J. Ross, who explores this issue in a new book, Lessons in Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students’ First Amendment Rights. Too many children don’t fully learn what it means to have the constitutional right of free speech — which means that they also don’t learn how to communicate with a peer when they are offended by what she says.

Some students are also uncertain about how to begin authentic conversations. In conducting interviews for her new book, The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, Warikoo found that students of color largely want honest dialogue, saying that without it, there will be no change in the status quo. But many white college students, Warikoo found, may be hesitant to discuss racial issues because they worry their comments will come off as racist or unsubstantiated. Some white students do not comprehend the significance of racial discrimination or understand that their own experiences of race are different from those of students of color, leading them to discount feelings of exclusion by their non-white peers.

And as political philosopher Meira Levinson explained, schools themselves may not always be perceived as safe spaces. Students of color may feel racially identified in a negative way by teachers with low expectations or by institutions named after racist figures. These students may feel uncomfortable speaking out­ — or conclude that a respectful conversation about their concerns is not possible.

Intellectually Challenging — and Safe

Amid these challenges, how can schools become environments that are both thought-provoking and respectful, intellectually challenging and safe? Ross and Warikoo offer some suggestions.

At all educational levels, teachers and principals should explore the ramifications of First-Amendment rights, explaining to students that everyone has a constitutional right to express their views, even though that speech can sometimes offend or hurt. At the same time, educators can foster productive dialogue and respectful communities by:

  • Leading conversations about words that hurt and terms that might be preferred instead.
  • Talking regularly about concepts like empathy, and finding avenues for students to express their empathy with peers.
  • Moderating discussions between a child and a peer she has offended.
  • Urging students to speak up when a peer uses derogatory speech.
  • Facilitating programs like “circle time” or other age-appropriate avenues to discuss complex topics, air grievances about offensive speech, and discuss alternative ways of interacting. 

At the higher education level specifically, the free and open exchange of ideas is central to the academic mission, and even private institutions, which can theoretically censor speech, typically enact policies protecting free speech. (Public institutions must abide by the demands of the First Amendment.) Faculty and administrators can promote democratic ideals and respectful dialogue by:

  • Moderating community meetings in the aftermath of difficult or offensive events.
  • Contextualizing quotations read in class that include offensive words. Professors should explain why they are using those quotations for academic purposes and acknowledge that those words can still hurt students, even when placed in their historical context.
  • Offering intergroup dialogue — a model developed by the University of Michigan. In these small seminars, with half of the participants from a marginal group and half from the dominant group, students engage in discussions over time about issues of difference, such as race and ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Demonstrating that they take students’ perspectives seriously and are willing to engage in difficult discussions when conflicts arise.

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.