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Free Speech, Safe Spaces, and the College Environment

Should there be free speech on college campuses? Should there be safe spaces? How should colleges balance them?

Those are questions addressed by Duke University professor Michael Munger in today’s Martin Center article, which is drawn from a talk he recently gave in Raleigh.

Much sarcasm has been directed at the idea of “safe spaces” on campus, but Munger sees nothing wrong in allowing individuals and groups to find or create such places. The thing is, that means allowing them to exclude people who don’t share their values — a concept that is under attack when certain people want to do that, such as devout Christians.

On the other hand, if you want nothing but “safety” from competing ideas, you don’t really belong in college, because that isn’t what the business of learning is about. On that score, Munger quotes leftist commentator Van Jones: “I don’t want you to be safe. I want you to be strong. And there’s a difference. Nobody can pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym. That’s the whole point of the gym, to break you down and cause pain, so you can become strong. THIS (debate) IS THE GYM.”

Munger criticizes the way many colleges and universities treat students unequally, with conservatives getting tough treatment of the sort Van Jones likes, and leftists getting soft, mushy treatment where they are never challenged. It’s like teaching chess students one-move openings and leaving them to think they’ve mastered the game, Munger says.

He concludes, “In fact, academic freedom must encompass both the right to constitute a narrowly focused safe space, and the right to challenge any conclusion that is part of the general orthodoxy. This is not a contradiction, but the implication of the freedom to conduct research and foster learning.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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