Opinion: Free Speech Requires Sense of Safety
Where to start?
News that the University of Virginia Student Council is taking special steps to give students a "safe space" for processing post-election emotions prompts a variety of responses.
Let's start where some of the students surely are starting: with a reported increase in hate crimes this fall.
Some of the despicable and cowardly acts include the word "terrorist" being written across the wall near a room occupied by two Muslim students, while a star with the word "Juden" — an apparent reference to the Holocaust — was spray-painted on the side of a building in an apartment complex near the university.
It is suspected that the hateful rhetoric spewed forth in the presidential campaign also helped spur the hateful vandalism.
When even on-duty police officers mock and taunt students who are protesting for better protection against hate crimes — as allegedly happened at UVa on Tuesday — no wonder students feel the need for a "safe space."
The election results might liberate even more violence against minorities — "immigrants, LGBT people, those with disabilities, women — anyone who has felt disparaged by the language of this election…," according to the Student Council statement.
With the aid of Dean of Libraries John Unsworth, the Student Council therefore set up the auditorium in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library as a place where students experiencing such a sense of threat could congregate to talk about their feelings and experiences.
It is worth saying here, loudly and clearly, that all spaces should be safe spaces for expression — especially at a university, where the pursuit of knowledge, as well as of subjective truth, should be encouraged.
That includes minority viewpoints of all types and all political persuasions.
But at this moment in time, those who are feeling threatened are students who hold liberal viewpoints. If it takes a safe room at a library to ensure that they feel safe in expressing their opinions, then so be it.
The other beneficial aspect of the safe-room concept is that it gives students a chance to vent emotions that otherwise might erupt into more harmful behaviors. We've seen protests, vandalisms and arrests elsewhere following the election; far better to talk through any feelings of fear, dismay or confusion than to act on them inappropriately (as the hate-inspired vandals did).
A letter from Student Council wisely addressed the mental health aspect of dealing with such feelings, which blindsided many Americans, young and old, who did not see the election results coming.
"To those struggling, please reach out for support," the letter said. "It is okay to feel sad, angry, frustrated, scared."
It is truly unfortunate that the perceived need exists for a "safe space" — that expressions of hatred have intimidated some people into feeling unsafe to express their own opinions in the public forum. Until we can solve that larger problem, the immediate solution created by the council is a smart response.