University Of Chicago Tells Freshmen: Don’t Expect Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces

Download Audio
A view overlooking the University of Chicago in November 2010. (kern.justin/Flickr)
A view overlooking the University of Chicago in November 2010. (kern.justin/Flickr)

University campuses around the country have made news in recent years with policies adding "trigger warnings" to potentially offensive, difficult or controversial teaching materials; and with the creation of safe spaces, where various types of language and behavior are not tolerated.

But the dean of students at the University of Chicago has sent all incoming freshman a letter, widely circulated on social media, telling them trigger warnings and safe spaces won't be allowed at Chicago.

Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd talks with Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone about the university's approach to free speech.

Interview Highlights: Geoffrey Stone

On the logic behind not having trigger warnings or safe spaces

"The basic principle on which the University of Chicago was founded was a deep commitment to academic freedom and to the freedom of expression. The core notion is that the way we seek the truth, the way we learn, the way we educate ourselves and one another is by a full and complete freedom to put forth ideas to disagree with ideas, to argue with them, to condemn them and to work out for ourselves what makes sense, what doesn't make sense.

There has been a trend in recent years in college and universities to put barriers in the way of that academic freedom. And Chicago has long stood for as full and complete in academic freedom as possible. This is reflected in the statement that the committee wrote a year and a half ago and in the dean of students' statement that was sent to entering freshman the other day."

On the rise of trigger warnings and safe spaces

“I think a couple of things have happened in recent years. One explanation, which has been put forth by a number of people, is that this new generation of college students has been raised by so-called 'helicopter parents,' that they have been shielded and protected and celebrated from the time of their birth and have basically been immunized from having to deal with frustration and defeat and challenge. That when encountering it, they don't have the resilience that their predecessors had and therefore seek protection from those things that they find upsetting. And to the extent that's true, it seems to me that a core responsibility of colleges and universities is to enable those students to develop the mechanisms that effective citizens need to have in order to deal in the real world, with ideas and views they find loathsome and offensive, and not to shield them in the way their parents allegedly have.

The second factor is a more positive one, and that's that it's probably true, that educators, including myself, became somewhat oblivious to the fact that there were students from a wide range of different groups in our communities who were feeling marginalized and devalued or harmed in meaningful ways by some discourse that most of the rest of us regarded as innocuous. To the credit of this generation of students, they have been in some ways courageous in being willing to say, this is intolerable, this not acceptable, this has a harm.”

On suggestions for students dealing with offensive Halloween costumes

"I suggest that if they think it's offensive and inappropriate and loathsome that they should condemn it. And they should make clear that this person's a jerk, or worse. But I don't think the university should punish the student."

On how the university's students have reacted

"The student reaction in general to the university policy has been extraordinarily enthusiastic. There have been some students certainly, and an op-ed in the student newspaper, The Maroon, that said we should be banning hate speech and so on. The overall reaction I think from faculty, students, and alumni has been very positive.

Chicago has long defined itself as an institution that is deeply committed to academic freedom, or free expression. People who come here know that, they take pride in that and frankly people who I think are intimidated by that sensibly choose to go somewhere else."


Geoffrey Stone, professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School. The school tweets @UChicagoLaw.

This article was originally published on August 26, 2016.

This segment aired on August 26, 2016.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live