Censorship with a Smile: How Play-Doh and Puppies Endanger America’s College Students

Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us. - Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran


In closed societies, free speech and inquiry are dangerous. The cost of speaking out is shutting yourself in: drawing the curtains, turning down the lights, and speaking in whispers.

America isn’t one of those societies. It’s a place where the protection of speech—however unpopular—gets first mention in our Bill of Rights. By law, speaking your mind in America shouldn’t be a risky endeavor.

But Brown University student Christopher Robotham would beg to differ.

In 2014, Robotham felt compelled to start an underground, invitation-only student club where his fellow Ivy leaguers could discuss controversial opinions, or even play devil’s advocate to uncontroversial ones. Robotham said some students and administrators had become increasingly hostile toward truly open discourse on campus, with mere debate on topics like race construed as, in itself, racist. Some went so far as to label the discussions literal acts of violence.

Robotham’s group was, in other words, a “safe space” for free speech.

Around the same time, another Brown student, Katherine Byron, was working with other student volunteers to organize a different kind of safe space: one specifically designed to shield students from the purported dangers of that sort of free expression.

With a controversial debate on sexual assault set to occur on campus, Byron told The New York Times that she worried the event might “invalidate people’s experiences” and be “damaging,” so she organized a soothing room where students could retreat if the rhetoric of the debate proved too much. It would have pillows and blankets and Play-Doh. Even a video of frolicking puppies.

A student who used the room told the Times’ Judith Shulevitz why: “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”

Safe Space Thinking

The phrase “safe space” was first used to describe gay bars of the 1960s as a physically safe and socially accepting environment for LGBTQ people. Recently, it has morphed into something more troubling: the creation of ever-larger spaces where anyone who is subjectively offended by anything can opt out of the conversation altogether.

The arguments for safe spaces use the same misguided justifications used by those who have advocated for censorship throughout the ages: That shielding ourselves from intolerant, dissenting, or merely confusing viewpoints protects us from those viewpoints and those who hold them.

That is precisely the argument University of Iowa administrators used in 2014 when they removed a piece of art by Turkish-born faculty artist Serhat Tanyolacar, who sought to facilitate campus discussion about race relations by creating a Ku Klux Klan robe out of newspaper clippings about racial violence. Instead of discussion, he got censorship, with university officials calling his piece “divisive, insensitive, and intolerant.” In short, the administration missed the point.

What’s different—and scarier—about safe spaces is not just that they can provide students with an easy-out echo chamber (complete with treats!), but that their advocates often accuse those who would insist on having difficult conversations of being violent aggressors.

One Tufts University student even told the Times’ Judith Shulevitz that her article criticizing Byron’s safe space at Brown amounted to “verbal violence.”

Conflating emotional safety and physical safety exponentially raises the stakes for those seeking to tackle controversial topics on campus through art, debate, or other means.

The examples of the power of the “safe space” mindset to shut down campus debate are numerous. Consider, for example, the case of Ashley Powell, a graduate student in fine arts at SUNY Buffalo. Last September, Powell—who is black—placed “White Only” and “Black Only” signs around campus. Students found them on water fountains, benches, and bathroom entrances, and were troubled to find these vestiges of pre-civil rights America seemingly alive on their campus.

According to a New York Times report, students opposed to the artwork seemed to conflate conceptions of emotional safety and physical safety, and did so to an extreme. One Twitter user wrote of Powell’s work, “Not only is [it] a hate crime, but it is also an act of terrorism.”

According to SUNY Buffalo’s independent student newspaper, The Spectrum, Powell addressed a large crowd at the school’s black student union in the aftermath of the controversy:

“I apologize for the extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about,” Powell said in the statement. “I apologize if you were hurt, but I do not apologize for what I did. Once again, this is my art practice. My work directly involves black trauma and non-white suffering. I do not believe that there can be social healing without first coming to terms with and expressing our own pain, rage, and trauma.”

Powell later told The Atlantic that the reaction students had to her piece was precisely the reaction she intended: “The signs are a reminder that just because you can’t see racism around you doesn’t mean it’s not there … I wanted people to feel something. I wanted people to realize they must confront racism and fight against it in their daily lives.”

While SUNY Buffalo did not completely censor the art, it demanded Powell place explanatory placards on the signs, diluting the emotional power she intended her message to convey and preventing the very revelation on which the artistic experience hinged.

This raises the question: Should campus artists be permitted to produce and display provocative and perhaps disturbing artwork like the piece at SUNY Buffalo, or must their work be made “safe” for college students’ consumption by dampening its emotional impact with a disclaimer? What about those on campus who welcomed Powell’s art and the conversation it produced? What did they lose? As Frederick Douglass reminded his audience in an 1860 speech, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

Sanitizing speech—through censorship, advisory warnings, or other means—never accomplishes its intended goals. In fact, it can backfire, creating martyrs for a cause and a larger platform for the controversial message.

Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph “Piss Christ,” depicting a crucifix submerged in urine, would never have garnered the attention it did had critics—including those at universities—not called for its censorship. The same can be said of Powell’s art, which, after demands for its censorship, received media coverage across the country. This phenomenon has come to be known as the “Streisand Effect,” named for what happened in 2003 after singer and actress Barbra Streisand attempted to censor photographs of her Malibu, California, home and instead drew more attention to it.

Play-Doh Fortresses

What might ultimately be the greatest loss in sanitizing speech for public consumption is not a larger platform for those views, but the power that comes from understanding the world as it actually exists. Suppressing controversial speech does not actually do away with controversial viewpointsit just hides them from view. If we censor speech, or hide from it, how would we know with whom we need to engage in dialogue? How would we even know when that dialogue is working?

Truth, of course, is what we should all be after.

Given this, the fact that the safe space movement is largely taking place on the modern university campus—a place that is meant to exist for the purpose of truth-seeking—is perhaps most troubling.

Higher education should provide an atmosphere where ideas are discussed, divisions created, biases tested, and offenses provoked. To be offended is to experience a necessary byproduct of a true education. If you attend college for four years and never listen to a contentious debate, see a piece of controversial art, or encounter an idea that provokes within you deep outrage, you should ask for your money back.

Offense is what we experience when we step outside of our echo chambers and encounter people who think differently than we do.

To shield ourselves from different viewpoints presumes that we have found ultimate truth. That we’ve reached the end of history.

But history is full of examples of people who falsely believed, as John Stuart Mill wrote, that “their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty” and that no more debate or discussion is necessary. Even if a viewpoint seems objectively wrong, we still create a greater conception of truth through its confrontation with that error. Truth is like a muscle; it must be exercised to remain strong. That is how we maintain a living truth, rather than a dead dogma.

If we wall ourselves off from that process in the name of protecting our own beliefs and biases, we simply create a Play-Doh fortress with many enemies outside its illusory gates.

As for Christopher Robotham, the Brown student who started the underground free speech group, he thinks students shouldn’t try to avoid offense, but actively grapple with it.

“Intellectual discussion is worthwhile and, in its own right, enjoyable,” he said. “Open discussion and freedom of speech have tangible use in progressing society. I think that that has been forgotten is unfortunate.”

We live in an increasingly diverse society, where many people have remarkably different beliefs and outlooks on life. A “safe space” that shields us from that diversity offers us a place to forget—or willfully ignore—that fact.

Free speech in the name of seeking truth asks that, for the sake of humanity, we remember.


Nico Perrino is FIRE’s Associate Director of Communications.

Alex Morey is Editor-in-Chief of FIRE’s award-winning news vertical, The Torch.