Safe spaces and academic freedom

“We have work to do.”

In light of the renewed attention to questions of “safe spaces” and academic freedom, I’ll repost the link to my long post on the topic from last spring.

The university is an association for the discovery, transmission, and preservation of knowledge… originally defined in part by the literal walls and gates that surrounded it. Academic freedom itself is a safe space: here you are free to inquire, debate, teach, and learn, without fear of being shouted down, drummed out, expelled, or fired for political or religious heterodoxy, being judged according to academic standards of inquiry, evidence, and argument. Protecting that community of inquiry means keeping any number of intrusions at bay. And the university is constituted as a system of safe spaces: around here we discuss as economists in order to make progress on our research agenda without constantly having to re-argue our premisses against philosophers pointing out how inadequate they are. In that classroom professors teach and students learn biology, in a discussion that is insulated from anti-scientific anti-vaccine ranting and creationist ranting alike. The students in the Black Students’ Association get together to explore questions of culture and identity, discuss shared experiences of life in a majority-white society or university, or just relax, insulated from the “but affirmative action should be abolished and people should be judged on their merits!” hectoring from each conservative white student who thinks they’re the first to communicate this radical idea. Each of those insulated environments is a part of the larger university whole; each of those debates can happen in other university settings. But in order to make intellectual progress, we create a system of nested and overlapping safe spaces within which we can say to the boring and disruptive critic endlessly repeating first-order objections: “Go away. Hush up. We have work to do.”

See also Henry Farrell at CT and Mark Tushnet at Balkinization. My own arguments about this grow out of ideas developed n Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, chapter 11. And see the University of Chicago statement on freedom of expression and the Kalven Report, which are much better statements of governing academic principle than is last week’s letter from Chicago, more concerned with the university itself and less concerned with extramural culture war signalling.

  • Sean II

    The chutzpah it takes, to accuse someone else of signaling at the end of that piece.


      Welcome back.

      • Sean II

        Thanks, though I won’t be staying.

        Looks like I’m not the only one who left either. This place had a nice heyday, back in 2012-2014. A libertarian forum tailor-made for the Occupy Wall Street era, we might say in hindsight: anti conflation, anti corporate statism, pro using liberty to improve the lot of the poor, etc.

        Funny how irrelevant those debates seem now. “Would Walmart really be so big if it couldn’t socialize the cost of transport?” “Is Apple’s IP driven business the height of capitalism, or the essence of coercive monopoly?”

        Suddenly no one cares. The action today is all fixed on a narrow set of social issues: “refugees”, bathrooms, police shootings, here and there an imaginary hate crime on some campus.

        And given the way that kind of conversation usually goes, wouldn’t we all rather be arguing about…I dunno, the potential benefits of setting strict non-aggression aside for the sake of a UBI? I miss that sort of thing, sure enough.


    Wow, have I been badly informed. When many Yale students went bat-sh*t because the Christakises dared to suggest that they not be overly-sensitive about Halloween costumes they might encounter, I didn’t realize that this uproar was really because these administrators had trespassed into the Yale economists’ conference rooms and mocked them about inter-personal utility comparisons. And when tenured LSU professor Teresa Buchanan was fired because some of her students protested her use of mild profanity and occasional off-color jokes, who knew she was really guilty of hectoring her black students, busy exploring questions of culture and identity, with boorish comments about affirmative action. And when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited from giving a commencement speech at Brandeis, I didn’t appreciate that this was to make sure she didn’t break into a biology classroom and start ranting on about creationism. All this abuse of private property rights happening right under our noses! I strongly suggest that you immediately notify FIRE that they have it all wrong. There aren’t hundreds of schools either violating the First Amendment or their own statements of their academic principles by censoring speech in the interests of preventing hurt feelings; no, there’s an epidemic of professors and students physically intruding into others’ private spaces and disrupting their activities. Why, who knew?

  • Freedom

    It is hard to take Prof. Tushnet’s protestations seriously when he has openly called for the left to use its ascendancy to crush its opposition.


    Stop the presses!! This just in: Israeli (leftist) film-maker disinvited to Syracuse University film festival over credible fears that he would disrupt physics classes there by insisting that the universe was only 6000 years old. Okay…more like BDS pressure…but we must protect our “safe spaces” come what may. http://legalinsurrection.com/2016/09/israeli-filmmaker-disinvited-at-syracuse-u-bds-faction-on-campus-will-make-matters-very-unpleasant-for-you-and-for-me/


    Uh-Oh, James Watson, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of DNA, caught breaking into a biology class room to deliver an unwelcome lecture on genetics. Well, not exactly…disinvited by NYU for a scheduled lecture because ten years ago he said something offensive about race. Well, it would be a good idea to change the locks on that class room anyway because he just might try to sneak back in. Yep, “we’ve got work to do.” http://dailycaller.com/2016/09/09/new-york-university-cancels-lecture-by-co-discoverer-of-dna-because-hes-too-offensive/


    News flash! New videos released of Yale students bravely guarding their dorm rooms to prevent Nickolas Christakis from breaking in to disrupt their private conversations about race, class, and gender. Well…okay…they are rudely hounding him in a public place with absurd charges and insults. The Reason writer gets it:

    But that’s not really what’s at stake in the debate over safe spaces. Free speech advocates object to students’ demands for non-private forums—classrooms, residence hall common areas, public squares—to be be transformed into safe spaces. As Jonathan Chait wrote in a rebuttal to Crockett:

    “It is very strange to read Chicago’s letter as a threat to forbid outings to gay bars or black churches. The letter is obviously directed at the common practice of delineating common public spaces on campus, like classrooms or auditoriums, to be “safe spaces” where political discourse must adhere to left-wing dogma.”

    I’ll stop now, having hopefully made my point. Many great essays are posted on BHL, but this isn’t one of them. This one is pathetically and perversely dumb.