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Safe Spaces and Free Speech on Campus

Professor Jamie Raskin discusses speech and tolerance at AU.

Jamie Raskin

How can American University be a place of both boundless intellectual adventure and basic emotional security for everyone?

This was the question posed by Washington College of Law Professor Jamie Raskin last Thursday to a packed house at the Katzen Arts Center. More than 200 students and faculty members showed up to hear Speaking Your Mind: The Politics of Disagreement on Campus. The event was sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Raskin, a renowned scholar of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment, is a Maryland State Senator and the Democratic nominee for Maryland’s 8th congressional district. He began his remarks by pointing out that the event itself was a testament to the open-mindedness of the College community.

"Cheers to AU for its unflinching embrace of open discussion of diversity and public discourse," he said.

Trigger Warnings
Raskin discussed how the study of Constitutional law requires students to deal with subjects ranging from the second amendment and gun violence, human rights, religious freedom, genocide, and many more. Unlike many of his peers at AU, Raskin does not use formal trigger warnings. "My whole syllabus is a trigger warning," he said.

"We want our students to stay in touch constantly with the emotional and moral dimension of the law, which is essential to real understanding of both legal history and legal strategy. Finding the moral and emotional center of a conflict is a great way to navigate your way through the twists and turns of legal doctrine."

Safe Space and Free Speech
While stating that free speech should be an imperative on campus, Raskin acknowledged that free speech and tolerance are not always easy to reconcile. "We all want maximum freedom of expression," he said. "On the other hand, we all want the maximum of personal respect. The problem is that one person’s exercise of free speech may look a lot like disrespect to somebody else."

Yet Raskin believes it is possible to balance intellectual freedom and emotional security.

Discussion and Audience Questions
After Raskin’s remarks, students from across the university joined him on stage for a lively panel discussion of the issues, followed by audience questions. Audience members shared personal experiences, and several students explained to Raskin how the presence of space spaces at American University has helped them deal with anxiety brought on by difficult subject matter, both in the classroom and across campus.

The student panelists included: Devontae Torriente, junior, School of Public Affairs and American University Student Government President; Sophia Celeste Vos, sophomore, School of International Service, and Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar; Andrew Magloughlin, junior, School of Public Affairs and President of AU Young Americans for Liberty; and, J.I. Cruz, sophomore, College of Arts and Sciences and Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar.