Some students at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University think the campus newspaper is an unsafe space because it dared to criticize—in the mildest of terms—the Black Lives Matter movement. These same students have sworn to wage a campaign of destruction and censorship against the newspaper until it accepts their demands for uncritical coverage of their issues.
It’s the ultimate irony of the campus safe-spacers, and one that grows clearer with each new college censorship story: Safety is actually the furthest thing from their minds.
An op-ed in Wesleyan’s student-run newspaper, The Argus, ignited a dispute last week by impugning the tactics of certain fringe elements of BLM, a social movement that aims to reduce police brutality against black people. The author of the piece, a white student and Iraq War veteran named Bryan Stascavage, wrote that he supported many of BLM’s goals but thought the more extreme rhetoric of some of its members was encouraging violence against cops.
“If vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement,” wrote Stascavage, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy. “And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.”
I don’t agree with Stascavage’s argument—there is no War on Cops, regardless of what conservatives insist to the contrary. But any fair-minded person would admit that this is tepid criticism. At the very least, considering whether BLM’s tactics are sound is a perfectly legitimate use of the opinion writer’s pen. Stascavage has the right to make his case without threat of retaliation, even if his arguments are ultimately worth rejecting.
But left-leaning BLM activists at Wesleyan disagree. In response to the op-ed, they created a petition with the explicit aim of punishing The Argus for humoring a contrary opinion:
“The undersigned agree to boycott The Argus, recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body,” wrote the petition’s authors (PDF). “Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future.”
More than 150 students—and at least two Wesleyan staff members—signed the petition.
Signatories vowed to “recycle” (read: confiscate and toss in the trash) all copies of The Argus they can get their hands on, unless and until their demands were met. Demands included the creation of a safe space for students of color and marginalized voices on the front page of The Argus, and sensitivity training for all staff writers.
At a meeting of the Wesleyan Student Assembly—the campus’s student government—advocates of the petition claimed that Stascavage’s op-ed was “perhaps even overtly racist” and called for The Argus to apologize. The petition has the support of WSA’s president and vice president—a worrisome fact for The Argus, since WSA has the power to deny funding to the newspaper and students have called for WSA to do precisely that.
The Argus’s editors have distanced themselves from the op-ed, but mildly defended their right to publish controversial opinions. And the newspaper has the backing of Weselyan’s administration, at least for the time being.
Consider what the petition—and its backers in the student government—are attempting to achieve: censorship, plain and simple. There’s no other word for it. Supporters of BLM not only think that their movement is beyond reproach, they also believe any and all criticism must necessarily come from a place of racism and violence. These safe-spacers assert the right to turn the campus into a bubble, devoid of words and ideas that bother them.
Contrast this demand for emotional safety with the threatening tactics the students have employed. Is there anything less in the spirit of safety and inclusion than tearing up newspaper copies to prevent the dissemination of a disfavored viewpoint? Similarly, the petition asserts that The Argus should make more room for “marginalized voices,” but Stascavage—whose views had attracted widespread condemnation from campus administrators, newspaper editors, and the students at large—is almost certainly more of a marginalized thinker on campus than adherents of BLM.
The hypocrisy of these students is galling, but their open contempt for the university’s mission is even worse. A college campus is an ideal setting for people with different backgrounds to butt heads and even learn something from one another. Perhaps, by engaging Stascavage, rather than threatening him, BLM could win a new supporter, or gain some insight into how its activism could be put to better use. Just maybe the experience might give Stascavage a new perspective on the frustrations of over-policed minority communities. But the students chose the path of censorship, and these opportunities for learning and growth have been short-circuited.
It bears repeating that a college where people who say something uncomfortable are viciously silenced isn’t really a college at all. But it also isn’t a safe space. No one’s emotional well-being is “safe” under a campus climate where a clumsy op-ed produces a campaign to destroy the student newspaper.
Safety isn’t the true goal of the safe-spacers. Conformity is.