Freedom of Speech vs. The Right to a Safe Space


Schools will prepare students to be responsible future citizens and lifelong learners. At least, this is the rhetoric that currently graces district and school missions around the United States. But what does this mean? How do we know when we have achieved this goal?

From the very beginning of the public school system, there has always been a debate about what content should be taught and what ideas/opinions students should be exposed to. Where the diversity of ideas/opinions students are exposed to (and are allowed to express) in public schools has generally grown in recent years, there are still notable variations in the level exposure between different districts and states. Are more restrictive districts/states hindering student growth? Will these districts/states truly be able to produce the responsible citizens we desire for a strong future?

In this post, I will be exploring what it means to have freedom of speech in a school and national context and discuss the debate between exposure to uncomfortable ideas and students’ right to a ‘safe space’ in schools.

Freedom of Speech vs. The Right to a ‘Safe Space’

For many year, the debate between whether or not exposing students to contentious material infringes on their right for schools to be a ‘safe space’ for them. Students have the right to feel as if their schools provide a secure environment that properly supports their academic and emotional growth. They also have the right to be exposed to a challenging curriculum that will make them academically competitive and prepared to enter the adult world. However, in the pursuit of providing a high quality curriculum, schools may introduce ideas that are contentious for students and may make them feel uncomfortable. Is this material detrimental to students who disagree with it or does exposure to these challenging ideas ultimately push students forward in their academic journey?

Creating Responsible Citizens

Gracing the mission statements of schools and social studies curriculum across the nation is the notion that they are preparing students to become ‘responsible citizens’ and ‘lifelong learners’. In order to become responsible citizens, students must be aware of their rights and work to preserve and protect these rights for others. As part of the First Amendment in the United States’ Bill of Rights, the freedom of speech has become a poster child of American freedom and  plays an important role in defining who is considered a ‘responsible’ citizen and who is not.

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If the goal of schools and/or social studies classes is to help students become ‘responsible citizens’, what do they need to teach its students? One thing might be to teach students when it is appropriate to practice their rights and in what manner they should do so in order to avoid potential negative consequences. The term ‘citizen’ implies the individual is part of a social group which, by extension, has its own norms/expectations. Where the law protects people against any legal consequences for exercising their rights, it does not protect them from social consequences. If I were to say something rude to my boss they can’t take me to court for what I said, but I will likely be fired. In order to act ‘responsibly’ as a citizen, students must be taught to be aware of these social expectations and how to exercise their rights accordingly.

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The greater challenge for schools to tackle and for students to learn is how to protect the rights they are given. This requires the individual to acknowledge and respect that other members of society have these rights, even if they do not exercise them responsibly. This is particularly challenging in the case of freedom of speech since the individual is easily exposed to ideas that conflict with their own. For many, this is a source of discomfort and it is second nature for us to then want to stop that individual from sharing those ideas either by avoiding them completely or by trying to silence them one way or another. While this urge is not always acted upon and is not always negative, it can potentially endanger the right to freedom of speech. In order to to be ‘responsible’ citizens, students must learn the skills to deal constructively with controversial ideas both publicly and within themselves.

Freedom of Speech: Developing Critical Thinkers

Since their creation, the goal of public schools has been to provide a quality, intellectually challenging curriculum for their students. Aside from ga greater sense of competitiveness in some areas, this goal has not changed. However, what we define as being a ‘challenging curriculum’ has changed to meet new expectations and availability of information. Recently, these expectations have come to include ‘critical thinking’ as a main attribute of an intellectually challenging curriculum.

So what is critical thinking? Critical thinking is the ability to analyze and question different ideas in an intellectual way. In other words, students have to develop the skill to listen to contentious ideas and control their emotional reactions so that they are able to break apart those ideas and address them in an informed way.This is not to say that feelings should be pushed aside entirely, they just can’t be the only factor on which opinions are formed and decisions are made.  Contentious ideas are so called because they they often cause us to feel strongly in one way or another, making this skill difficult to develop.

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Like most skills, critical thinking needs to be practiced. In order to develop and practice this skill, students need to be exposed to potentially contentious ideas and pushed to question information and ideas that may seem conventional. These ideas and exercises may make students uncomfortable at first, but dealing with this feeling constructively is part of mastering the skill. School is a great place for this process to occur as students are with peers they are familiar with and have a professional present to guide them through this difficult process in a positive way. Schools have also already made themselves ‘safe spaces’ for students in many other ways and it is best for students to develop these skills in a place where they know they are safe and their opinions respected.

Right to a Safe Space

In order for the best learning to occur, students need to feel safe in their environment. In fact, students have a right to feel safe in the schools they attend. It is the school’s duty to make sure that students feel emotionally supported and are taught essential skills and knowledge in positive way. Where it good for students to be pushed to analyze the material they are given, exposing students to contentious ideas can be emotionally distressing and is better when done under parental guidance.

Exposing students to contentious ideas in class makes the students feel vulnerable and unsafe. Teachers will often assign students a position to take on an issue or prompt them to analyze the issue from a certain lense that they strongly disagree with. The student is then uncomfortable and conflicted as they are being forced to express a viewpoint they don’t have. Additionally, students are very conscious of what their peers and teacher want and/or expect them to think about certain issues. This makes students feel vulnerable as they are afraid of the consequences of sharing their thoughts if their viewpoints differ

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The safest and most supportive environment for students to work through contentious ideas is at home where they can receive guidance from their parents. Not only does this protect the student’s right to feel safe, it also protects the parents’ right to provide the moral guidance they see fit for their child as they develop into young, socially responsible adults. Students trust their parents and know that their ideas will not be judged or shared without their permission. With this kind of support, students are able to develop their own opinions and a positive self-image without damaging their school experience.

Closing Thoughts

Though I often try to address both sides of an argument equally and focus on questioning rather than pushing an opinion, I unfortunately lean more to one side in this debate. The idea of minimizing student exposure to contentious ideas and limiting what I push them to question is a scary concept for me. The reality is the less ideas students are exposed to, the more students/people you shut out and fail to represent. Who will feel vulnerable then? Just like any other skill you learn in school, avoiding the lesson does not make it go away. Students will be exposed to contentious ideas one way or another and will have to know how to deal with them; this is the consequence of having the freedom of speech.

Every human being carries opinions, biases and dispositions. We vary immensely in our ability to put our own opinions aside and in our level of comfort in engaging in topics that carry emotional, ethical, and/or moral baggage. Some are better in providing guidance than others. The only real difference between parents and teachers is that teachers have been trained to provide guidance to students so they are better able to develop this skill. More specifically, teachers have been taught how to help students question without telling them what to ultimately believe. Not only have they been trained, but government standards forces them to explore ideas and issues they may disagree with themselves for the benefit of student growth. Where I admit that some teachers are better at promoting this growth than others, there are many unknowns when it comes to parental guidance in this instance.

A lot of what can occur at home is dependent on the type of relationship students have with their parents, how knowledgeable parents are about different issues, and the comfort level parents feel at addressing these ideas. What happens if the student disagrees with their parents? Will they feel pressured? Will they be judged by the people they care about? Will it even be safe for them to express their disagreement? What if they don’t have the information the student desires? Will they be able to help students research and discover things for themselves? Will they allow these discussions to happen at all? What happens when they finally have to come to terms with opinions of others in public? Will they be ready to play the role of ‘responsible citizen’?

This post was inspired by a video that focuses on the freedom of speech in British colleges. The individual in the video makes a lot of good points despite being heavily one-sided. I have not posted the video here as I felt the manner in which this individual’s opinions were expressed would have distracted from the content of the post. To see the video, click here.

Have you own thoughts to share? Want to see something discussed on FUTD? Leave a comment below!

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