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U. of C. Says Letter Decrying Safe Spaces Was Really About Censorship

By Sam Cholke | August 26, 2016 3:29pm
 The University of Chicago said a dean's condemnation of trigger warnings and safe spaces in a letter to freshmen was meant to target intellectual censorship
The University of Chicago said a dean's condemnation of trigger warnings and safe spaces in a letter to freshmen was meant to target intellectual censorship
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Flickr/Don Burkett

HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago clarified a dean's opposition to hot-button terms “trigger warning” and “safe spaces” in a letter to incoming freshmen, saying Friday it was directed at intellectual censorship.

The university released a statement Friday that clarified Dean of Students John Ellison’s claim in a welcome letter sent Wednesday to incoming freshmen that the university does not support trigger warnings and safe spaces was meant to convey the openness of expression on campus and that new students should not fear that their views would be censored.

“Academic freedom is a fundamental value at the University of Chicago,” the university said in a statement.

“Among other things it means that faculty members have broad freedom in how they accommodate concerns that students may express, including advising students about difficult material,” the statement said. “The university does not mandate a specific approach to these issues. Student groups and university departments also will continue the important work of creating welcoming venues for conversation and dialogue.”

RELATED: University Of Chicago: 'Trigger Warnings,' Safe Spaces Violate Free Speech

The university said it encourages students to use support resources on campus, including counselors and mutual support groups.

Ellison’s letter sparked controversy nationally for its use of terms that have become controversial and decried by opponents as the symptoms of a rising attitude at colleges that students are coddled and protected from controversial ideas.

While practices vary from campus to campus, some professors use trigger warnings to alert students to content that deals with potentially traumatic issues like sexual violence, abuse or other controversial, graphic and sensitive topics.

Safe spaces are generally locations where individuals feel they can hang out without being harassed, attacked, unwelcome or fearful due to their race, gender, sexual orientation or identity — basically, hate crime-free zones.

RELATED: U. Of C. Students To Dean: Do You Even Know What Trigger Warnings Are?

Immediately after the letter went out, students on U. of C.’s campus said both methods are used and on campus and condoned by the administration, particularly for people who have suffered sexual violence, and Ellison’s letter undermined those efforts.

“I spent four years at the U. of C., and consistently it was administrators who were the most coddled and safe-space-seeking people at [the university],” said Tyler Kissinger, the former president of student government on campus, on Twitter Thursday. “It’s a PR shot for a university which has a long history of refusing to submit itself to the same sort of ‘critical inquiry’ it champions.”

Other members of the current student government on Thursday said the dean’s letter showed an ignorance to how the terms are already used within the campus community and incorporated into efforts to improve the campus while the university is under federal investigation by the Department of Justice for it’s policies on sexual violence.

Several students, including Kissinger, pointed out that Ellison should not have been naïve to how safe spaces are specifically used on campus.

Ellison is listed among the staff who has been trained to be a safe space ally through the Office of LGBTQ Student Life.

Kissinger and others in the current student government said there are issues with freedom of expression on campus, but they are mostly outside of the classroom.

Student government representatives, including the current president, Eric Holmberg, said they have had difficulty getting meetings with administration officials over the past four years to talk about student concerns about racial profiling by the university’s police, efforts to unionize the graduate students and establish a trauma center at the university’s hospital.

The university’s statement said it continues to work on its policies regarding freedom of expression on campus, including a 2015 report by faculty on improving reactions to protests and other actions on campus.

“Civility, mutual respect and diversity are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others,” the statement said. “In a similar vein, one of the main topics of [university President] Zimmer’s welcome message last fall was freedom of expression and the faculty report.”

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