No free or democratic society can endure without robust protections for freedom of speech, which are carefully protected in our Constitution and our laws. Today, however, we see that the idea and cultural practice of free speech are under assault today, especially on university campuses, which are now — according to the activists — supposed to be “safe spaces.”

The idea of the “safe space” is novel, but in some ways seductively appealing. It is not simply that the idea that we should be free from fear of physical harm: criminal and civil laws already are there to protect our freedom and physical safety. These “safe spaces” promise yet a further dimension of safety — an environment in which one need never fear being insulted, demeaned or made to feel unwelcome, an environment in which one is perfectly “at home.”

Unfortunately, the idea of the “safe space” is inherently totalitarian, a threat to freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry and to democracy itself. Just this week, we saw two striking examples, one at the University of Missouri, the other at Yale.

At the University of Missouri, which has been roiled by protests that ultimately led to the resignation of the university chancellor and president, a journalist was forcibly prevented from reporting about one of the protests because his presence made the protesters feel unsafe.

Under Missouri state law, the reporter had an absolute right to cover the demonstration, which was taking place in a “free speech zone.” The protesters had other ideas. The whole incident can be seen on YouTube: A crowd of the protesters had formed a human wall around a tent city they didn’t want the reporter to photograph, then they bodily pushed the reporter backwards, while demanding that he respect their space. Ultimately, after more such aggressions against the reporter, a professor (!) called for “some muscle” to make the reporter leave.

At Yale University, after the administration issued an all-campus email advising students not to wear offensive Halloween costumes, a faculty member who lives on the campus as a faculty leader of one of the dormitory complexes wrote a follow-up email to the students in her dorm.


She wrote that, while she appreciated the “laudable” motives of the administrators, she called upon the community “to reflect more transparently” on whether it is a good idea for administrators to tell students how to dress up for Halloween.

Formerly, she wrote, colleges were places of “transgressive” experience; increasingly, it seems, “they have become places of censure and prohibition. And this censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves!” She concluded that it was not her business to control the costumes young people wear.

This email provoked, not the desired conversation, but a storm of angry protests in which the students in effect demanded to be treated as children.

At one key moment, the letter writer’s husband — officially the senior faculty member responsible for the dorm complex — went to meet with the protesting students. This encounter, too, can be seen on video. The lone professor is surrounded by students, one of whom screams obscenities at him and insists “it is not about creating an intellectual community here.” What she demands instead is a “home” and a “safe space.”

As at Missouri, the Yale students’ demand for a “safe space” became an excuse for bullying and a license for insult. As at Missouri, we see at Yale a mob of angry protesters demanding their own safety in a manner calculated to make the target of their anger feel decidedly unsafe.

It is not accidental that the demand for safety so quickly morphed in both cases into a license for aggression. The problem is inherent in the demand for a subjective feeling of perfect safety.


Diversity and disagreement are never altogether comfortable, and they can never be made perfectly “safe.” Few things are as unpleasant as having one’s foundational certitudes challenged and one’s core beliefs — or one’s very identity — disparaged, or dismissed.

But the only way to be “safe” from such experiences is to abolish diversity and disagreement altogether — to mandate the one right way of life and of thinking, as the Missouri and Yale protesters are trying to do. Ultimately, that aim is self-defeating: Once today’s threatening voices have been silenced, new disagreements will arise, provoking new anxieties about “safety.”

The only stable and enduringly peaceful order is one that accepts the discomfort that inevitably arises in a big world full of people who respect one another’s freedom to disagree.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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