Free speech its own safe space
Two news items, which at first glance might appear unrelated, deserve some further consideration.
One was the refusal of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to stand with the rest of his team during the playing of the national anthem prior to Friday night’s preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Following the game, Kaepernick explained his decision to NFL Media, saying in part: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick knew the decision would invite a backlash. In fact, he counted on it; why protest if nobody’s paying attention? The objections came from football fans, fellow players, pundits and others. Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, for example, supported Kapernick’s right to speak out on an important issue, but objected to his method of protest: “… there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag,” he told ESPN.
The other news item involves a letter sent by the dean of students at the University of Chicago to its incoming freshmen, as reported in The New York Times.
In response to recent controversies at other colleges over the cancellation of speeches by controversial speakers or topics and demands to protect students from speech they might find objectionable, the dean, John Ellison, made the Illinois college’s position clear: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
The dean’s statement shouldn’t be taken to mean that professors and the school itself would tolerate abusive behavior and don’t have expectations for civil treatment and respect for all in classrooms and elsewhere on campus. But the letter does give full respect for academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas and honors the nation’s First Amendment rights.
It’s just that nobody seems to be connecting the dots between the two events.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in the nation’s capital, for example, objected to Kaepernick’s refusal to honor the flag by sharing a National Review post on its Facebook page, asking others to “share if you always stand for the national anthem.” Earlier, again on its Facebook page, the foundation said the letter from the University of Chicago dean’s letter “will make you stand up and cheer.”
Safe spaces, then, are OK in the eyes of the Heritage Foundation and others if we’re roping off football stadiums to protect fans and players from the objectionable sight of someone not standing to honor the flag.
Looking at the other side of the coin, there are plenty who likely rushed to defend Kaepernick and in the next breath would have criticized the dean’s letter.
With free speech comes the risk that we open ourselves to being offended, to being confronted by ideas with which we don’t agree. When that happens, our response as Americans requires us not to stifle what’s being said but to speak up.