Winter 2017


Free Exchange of Ideas Requires a Safe Environment

Don O'Shea, president of New College of Florida

Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on

I can’t count the number of social occasions I’ve attended recently at which a fellow guest declares that in his day (it usually is a "he"), university campuses were places where students challenged one another and expected to be challenged by faculty or other students. Today’s students, his narrative continues, require constant reassurance, safe spaces and trigger warnings.

There is no question that universities should be places where students encounter ideas and speech very different than their own, some of which they may view as unpleasant. And yes, students should be prepared to have their own beliefs and thoughts challenged.

It is up to universities to provide environments in which those encounters and challenges can take place, and still be a free and equal exchange of ideas. This is more difficult today than it once was. But there are steps they can and must take. The first, and simplest, is to ensure that students feel physically safe. Students cannot air a view if they fear they will be physically attacked.

Students also must feel emotionally safe. It is difficult to air a view if you are going to be physically shunned or mobbed on social media. Nor should a student have to defend a point of view at all times —- everyone requires down time.

The more homogenous a campus is, the more likely it is that cafeterias, residence halls and recreational facilities will serve as safe spaces where one can meet friends with whom one can be oneself. But for students who belong to tiny visible minorities (think, for example, of small numbers of black students on an overwhelmingly white campus, or small numbers of religiously observant students on an overwhelmingly secular campus), the university must help find spaces that students feel emotionally safe.

Another requirement is civility. This means that faculty, students and staff agree on what, for lack of a better word, I would call “rules of engagement.” These are seldom stated explicitly, but are often familiar to those with good high school educations. What are these?

The first rule is fairness. A naïve first-year student being intellectually savaged by a rhetorically skilled senior or a professor is not a fair exchange of views. Neither is a right-wing or left-wing agitator haranguing a crowd who is the only one in a lecture hall with a microphone.

A second rule is respectfulness. Ideas should be debated on their merits, not on who is presenting them. Ad hominen arguments must be off the table; no insulting language.

A third rule, related to but not the same as the second, is anticipation of and alerting another to an argument that might offend or that might be misinterpreted as an attack. In today’s parlance, that is a trigger warning.

Any teacher will tell you that students have always needed encouragement and reassurance. Though we often hear the terms derided, safe spaces and trigger warnings are nothing more than new names for what educators have always provided.

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