War of the Words

This piece is an adaptation of a talk titled “Steward Speech to Free Spaces” given by Zachary Lee for the Q-Union Conference on October 27th, 2017.

When Condoleezza Rice, the 66th United States Secretary of State, was scheduled to give the 2014 commencement address at Rutgers University, there was an ample amount of backlash from the student body. Many of the protesters pressured her to back out from the address, decrying her involvement in the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and her approval of waterboarding torture methods. Rice eventually announced that she would not be speaking at Rutgers due to the controversy, stating “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families. Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”[1] Yet there were also faculty and students who supported her and petitioned to have her come back and speak.

Occurrences like these frequent college campuses today with Yale, Middlebury, and even Cornell. In 2016, the Cornell Republicans hosted Rick Santorum to speak on his political ideologies and his expectations for the future of America under President Donald Trump. He, like many other speakers, had his speech impeded and was met by strong resistance and heckling from students who viewed his ideas as “racist” and “anti-gay.”[2] Even more recently, a number of horrific events have plagued campus: the anti-semitic posters that appeared on campus buildings, the racial epithets hurled at an African-American student in Collegetown, and the “build a wall chants” around the Latino Living Center by a Zeta Psi fraternity member.[3]

These recent events on university campuses reveal a dynamic in which free speech and safe spaces appear to be at odds. At the University, we desire discourse and diversity of opinions so that we may better learn the truth, which is the heartbeat of the liberal arts education and the mission of the educational institution. On the other hand, students live on campus, and we want them to feel safe. Yet this desire for safety is not easy if students are faced with ideas and worldviews that profoundly clash with their own, particularly views that seem bigoted and hateful. As a result, this paradox remains: free speech makes spaces unsafe and safe space limits speech.

Additionally, there are two other realities that further complicate this issue. The first is that the University is multifaceted and dichotomous in nature. Ashutosh Bhagwat, Professor of Law at the University of California, and John Inazu, author of Confident Pluralism, state in their essay on safe spaces that the university is neither “a wholly privatized space” nor a “pure public forum.” The campus is filled with “venues for robust, open debate where speech restrictions have no place,” yet are also “havens for their students, who are perfectly entitled to their privacy.”[4] Students’ homes overlap with these arenas of dispute which makes mandating and regulating the permissibility of spaces for debate difficult.

Secondly, it is hard to have respectful debate in a postmodern world where truth is subjective. If people believed that there was external truth to personal opinion, then people could have respectful debate and critique ideas instead of the person in search of that measureable truth. Now, when you attack one’s ideas, you attack one’s person.[5] For example, if I, a Chicagoan, were to say that Deep Dish Pizza is avant-garde, complex, and far superior to the layman and simple New York Style Pizza, such an exhortation is no longer an objective true statement (which it clearly is). Rather, it is inseparable from my personal beliefs and a part of who I am. For those who argue for the superiority of New York Style Pizza no longer question a true statement, rather, they also question who I am. Their argument becomes an attack on me. While this example is contrived and histrionic—rarely will people riot or violently protest over differences in pizza—when the subject is one such as race, religion, gender, socio-economic background, subsequent discussions can have this level of personal attack.

The question therefore becomes not should safe spaces and free speech coexist; the construction and purpose of the University guarantees that it must be so, but how must the two coexist and even work together? The first step towards coexistence is to acknowledge that free speech and safe spaces have pertinent and relevant functions on campus, despite the fact that proponents of one or the other would say otherwise. Ironically, these clashing concepts were both born out of the same spirit of resistance. Safe spaces were designed for marginalized groups to find “practical resistance to political and social repression.” Black churches, for example, acted as havens and sustainable areas for African-Americans who were rejected by white Christianity. Likewise free speech was designed to help individuals speak out against broken and unfair systems and critique unjust laws when the earlier colonists fought back against the restrictions and draconian rule of the British Empire. As they share the same structural origins, what is the key to their reconciliation? Ultimately, it becomes a matter of discernment: which areas on campus are to operate as safe havens for students who want to be surrounded by people who share their views, and which spaces are where respectable discourse and argument is permissible? Dorm rooms, for example, are clear spaces where students should be entitled to privacy and the space to recharge, regroup, and reenergize without fear of attack for the beliefs they hold. Likewise, groups and clubs, channeling the freedom of association, have the right to have private physical places to meet and deliberate; within these spaces they are allowed to exclude (and shield themselves from) opposing viewpoints. The caveat is that the University allocates said spaces evenly to everyone who asks.

On the other hand, lecture halls and socratic seminar style classes are venues for discourse. These spaces are able to help students change the associations that cause them discomfort, and this sort of conversation is better perhaps in the controlled environment of the classroom. There is a difference between judging to condemn, and judging to assess and maybe even redeem; avoid the former, embrace the latter. It is places that are more ambiguous that require discretion and tactfulness such as message boards in dormitory, common room areas, and hallways outside of faculty offices.

In addition, as a Christian, I am always interested in seeing what the ancient texts of my tradition have to contribute by way of wisdom on such a matter. In the book of Genesis, God literally spoke the world into existence. God said. It was so. It was good. One sees this pattern of God’s speech-acts being repeated throughout Scripture in a lyrical way. According to the Jewish and Christian traditions, human beings are created in the image of a talking God—a God who loves words and a God who exercises his power through them. Though we may not create galaxies or turn water into wine, our words have power: to build up and destroy. If we do not act as stewards of speech, detrimental consequences follow. In the Christian New Testament, Jesus likens unrighteous anger to murder. This should give some pause to individuals before they decide to speak harshly. For those who follow Jesus, we have a divine command from God to be responsible with this gift and we are commanded to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.”[6]

Luke 6:45 states “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” And yet Jeremiah 17:9 states “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” It is difficult to live life believing that one’s desires are wrong. It is much easier to live believing that our emotions are valid and do not need to be regulated; after all, God created human beings to be emotional and it would be wrong to completely discredit one’s feelings. The problem begins when our emotions become the sole basis by which we live our lives. In today’s culture, speaking words in their raw form is true authenticity. As Christians, we know that the tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.”[7] To fully change one’s speech begins with a change of heart, and this change can only come from God. Yet those who call themselves Christians can set an example on campus and change the current culture. Even as Christians engage in debate, we must not just say the first things that come to mind; even when a comment offends, it is important to think about what you say and to truly value the person with whom you are debating.

Yet due to the Fall, we treat our opponents as less than. We forget that even the most scathing opinions do not define people, and scoff at the idea that our “enemies” are also made in the image of God. If we truly believe this then we have no basis or reason to listen to what others have to say. But if we were to respect each other of their inherent value as image bearers, we would be able to share our ideas with lovingly and with acumen and be more patient and respectful listeners. Let the word of God be the measure of our truth and compassion.

On Earth, the unfortunate reality is that there will always be tension between safe spaces and free speech. While their co-existence is something that we we have to look forward to when the work of Jesus is completed, there are steps that we can take now to bring this reality closer. If people on campus consciously think of themselves as stewards of speech and use wisdom in determining which spaces are appropriate to have debate, such acts will not only work towards healing our divided nation but ultimately restoring a broken one.


1 Kristina Sguelglia, “Condoleezza Rice declines to speak at Rutgers after student protests,” CNN, 5 May 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/04/ us/condoleeza-rice-rutgers-protests/index.html, Anna Delwiche, “Students Protest Santorum’s Visit, Calling Politician’s Policies ‘Racist,’ ‘Anti- Gay’”, Cornell Daily Sun, 30 November 2016, http://cornellsun.com/2016/11/30/students-protest-santorums-visit-calling-politicians-policies-racist-anti-gay/.

2 Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Anna Delwiche, “Anti-Semitic Posters Appear on Ezra Cornell Statue, Campus Buildings”, Cornell Daily Sun, 23 October 2017, http://cornellsun. com/2017/10/23/anti-semitic-posters-appear-on-campus-advertising-apparently-fake-hate-group/; Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, “Ithaca Police Arrest Cornell Student for Possible Hate Crime in Collegetown”, Cornell Daily Sun, 15 September 2017, http://cornellsun. com/2017/09/15/ithaca-police-arrest-student- for-possible-hate-crime-in-collegetown/; Josh Girsky, “Fraternity Member Allegedly Chants ‘Build a Wall’ Near Latino Living Center”, Cornell Daily Sun, 7 September 2017, http://cornellsun. com/2017/09/07/fraternity-member-allegedly-chants-build-a-wall-near-latino-living-center/.

3 Ashutosh Bhagwat and John Inazu, “Searching for Safe Spaces”, Inside Higher ED, 21 March 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/ views/2017/03/21/easily-caricatured-safe-spaces-can-help-students-learn-essay.

4 Joshua Tseng-Tham, “Campus Voices: Postmodernism and the Paradox of Tolerance,” The Veritas Forum, 9 May 2017, http://www. veritas.org/postmodernism-paradox-tolerance/.

5 Ephesians 5:19 (NIV)

6 James 3:8-10 (NIV)


Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences studying English, Creative Writing, and Spanish. When he is not writing poetry and performing it, he can be found analyzing Summer blockbusters, reading Dostoevsky, and listening to Christian hip-hop.

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