Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

'Safe Spaces' And 'Brave Spaces': The Case For Creating Law School Classrooms That Are Both

Laura Graham (Wake Forest), 'Safe Spaces' and 'Brave Spaces': The Case for Creating Law School Classrooms that Are Both, 76 U. Miami L. Rev. __ (2022):

Over the past decade, the subject of “safe spaces” on college and university campuses has received much press. As originally conceived, the term “safe space” refers to an environment—often a physical space—in which “everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves and participating fully, without fear of attack, ridicule, or denial of experience.” And while this original conception may not seem controversial, the meaning of “safe spaces” as applied to higher education classrooms is a subject of ongoing vigorous debate. On one side of the debate are those who believe that safe spaces foster learning by making it possible for students to be exposed to diverse perspectives in an atmosphere of honesty, respect, and empathy. On the other side of the debate are those who believe that safe spaces threaten academic freedom by requiring professors and students to refrain from expressing any viewpoint or idea that might be threatening or “triggering” to others.

Student demand for safe spaces has been on the rise for decades, and there is reason to believe that with the arrival of Generation Z students on college and university campuses, the demand will increase. As a group, Gen Z students tend to be more anxious than their predecessor generations, and with the confluence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial unrest of 2020, they have much to be anxious about. Moreover, many Gen Z students have become accustomed to being protected from difficult situations (some refer to them as “coddled”). But at the same time, Gen Z is widely recognized as being more activist than their Millennial predecessors, on issues ranging from racial justice to human trafficking to climate change. It stands to reason that faculty, staff, and administrators in the higher education setting will need to figure out how to provide a learning environment that balances Gen Z students’ insistence on addressing difficult social issues with their desire to do so in a safe space.

But what exactly is a safe space? And should creating safe spaces be a goal of institutions of higher learning?

Those questions take on added weight in the law school context because of the key role of the law in shaping society. Unlike undergraduate education, legal education is specifically designed to equip students to enter the profession, where they will encounter myriad situations that require them to step out of their comfort zones. This has perhaps never been truer than in 2021, as racial and social justice issues have risen to the forefront of the American consciousness at the same time that our country has experienced unprecedented political polarization. It is in this environment that lawyers are increasingly being called on to step forward to use their legal training to effect systemic change. Thus, as legal educators train future lawyers who will serve “on the front lines,” it is critical that difficult racial and social justice issues be discussed in law school classrooms. So the question becomes, can law school classrooms ever be truly safe spaces?

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