Free Association, Not Safe Spaces, on Campus

Many universities are now in the business of creating “safe spaces.” The concept is not well defined but includes establishing actual physical spaces that will be reserved for some group, generally a group that a university defines as a minority. But some of these same universities also impose so-called “all comers policies,” in which no group is permitted to exclude anyone even from its elected offices on the basis of their beliefs. Thus, for instance, Christian groups would have to admit atheists even as potential leaders.

But policies that create safe spaces are in substantial tension with those that require clubs to accept all comers. A group of Christian evangelicals might well believe that it may be more effective in its mission if its members shared its basic beliefs. It might also make its members feel more comfortable discussing them, if  the organization did not have opponents in its midst.  That is not to say that a restrictive charter creates the ideal form of such an organization: some groups of evangelicals might well welcome embrace debate at every turn and benefit from the intense scrutiny of every argument.

One of the virtues of allowing groups to make such decisions is that a community would no doubt get a range of distinctive spaces for speech generated by different trade-offs between mission and openness. Another is that the university would respect many different forms of diversity that bubble up from below rather than just those that conform to its official line on what kind of diversity matters.  Most importantly, a university that is dedicated to creating places where people can feel comfortable, but does not want to be in the business of creating official restrictions on speech in student life should also be pleased with the self-organization of overlapping spheres of debate.

In reality, however, some university administrators  will not be so delighted,  because respect for free association deprives them of power to pursue their own ideological mission of deciding which minorities need most protection and which kind of diversity is worthy. It is not surprising that for left-liberal administrators evangelical Christians are not their preferred minority, although their numbers may be smaller than some of the more preferred kinds.

But universities can best permit the creation of distinctive spaces, which may include “safe ones,” if they leave such decisions to the self-organization of students and faculty, including, of course, student and faculty criticism of particularly restrictive charters.  To promote free association universities should simply adopt neutral policies to facilitate the use of its physical spaces by any student association. The virtues of spontaneous order would then replace university inspired and enforced political correctness.