University of Chicago Commits to Free Speech, Ideas

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

The University of Chicago has decided to warn incoming freshmen that they will not be protected by the school from controversial topics, adding that no “trigger warnings” or “intellectual safe spaces” will exist on campus.

The university sent a letter to all incoming freshmen last week explaining that a tradition of intense debate concerning sensitive topics exists at the school, adding that censorship would not be tolerated.

“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,” Jay Ellison, dean of students, says in the letter.

Trigger warnings and safe spaces were introduced on college campuses across the country as a way to help students prepare how to handle controversial ideas, and offers a space for students to discuss such ideas without having their opinions challenged, writes Sam Cholke for DNA Info.

However, the concepts have earned a reputation as a way for students to avoid confrontation with ideas that conflict with their own.

“You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement,” Ellison writes. “At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

Ellison went on to say that discussing these topics does not mean that people will be given the freedom to harass or threaten others.  He said the campus is welcoming of students from all backgrounds and a diverse set of opinions is a fundamental strength of the campus as a community.

A story written about the letter on the student newspaper website, The Chicago Maroon, earned more than 200 comments.  The majority of comments were in support of the letter, calling the issue a form of “political correctness.”

“A college that expects a student to be exposed to differing points of view? A college with a backbone? Say it ain’t so,” wrote one.

Similar statements have been made at other colleges, but Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the message from the University of Chicago is the most direct.  The foundation critical of the speech restrictions found on campuses, which it called destructive.

However, some, including former student body president Tyler Kissinger, are calling the letter hypocritical.  Kissinger said that he was almost banned from graduation last year after he helped protestors enter a campus building in order to hold a sit-in over graduate student wages.  He called the letter insensitive, citing a current investigation by the federal Department of Education on the handling of sexual assaults by the university.  He added that stickers can be seen throughout the campus in support of the Safe Space program.

Jeremy Manier, a spokesman for the school, said there was no hidden motive behind the letter, adding that professors are able to use trigger warnings if they so desire.  The warnings come in the form of messages posted to the top of campus publications, assignments and other material.  Manier said that the readings could be distressing to some individuals who have had a traumatic experience, such as images of violence, writes Richard Perez-Pena for The New York Times.