'Safe spaces' on college campuses run at odds with First Amendment, say law experts

So-called "safe spaces" -- where students can shield themselves from uncomfortable or dissenting viewpoints -- might be all the rage on college campuses, but they would not have been too popular with the founding fathers, say Constitutional law experts.

"I think the problem is they're trying to use this word 'safe' – which conveys the image of a violent attack – and turning it into safe from ideas and statements we find offensive," said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh. "There is no right to be safe from that."

"That is directly contrary to what universities are all about," Volokh told FoxNews.com Friday.

"They want complete control over their personal lives, over their sex lives, over the use of drugs, but they want mommy and daddy dean to please give them a safe place, to protect them from ideas that maybe are insensitive, maybe will make them think."

— attorney Alan Dershowitz

The controversy over such zones comes after a string of recent, racially-charged incidents at universities nationwide that -- while different -- share a common denominator: the promotion of a "PC culture" where real or perceived threatening thoughts or ideas should not be tolerated.

Such a heated debate played out on the campus of Yale University last week -- one over culturally sensitive Halloween costumes that was recorded in a video that has since gone viral.

On Oct. 30, Erika Christakis, Yale faculty member and associate "master" of Silliman College -- a residential community within the university -- sent an e-mail to students in which she questioned an earlier missive by the university that urged students to "take the time to consider their [Halloween] costumes and the impact it may have" -- including feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing "war paint" or changing the color of one's skin tone.

"Dear Sillimanders," Christakis' e-mail began. "I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do."

"But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students," Christaki said.

Referring to her husband, Silliman College "master" and Yale professor, Christakis added, "Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

Christakis' e-mail spurred outrage among a large group of students at Yale, who staged a massive protest -- called the "March of Resiliency" -- during which they called for inclusiveness on the college campus. Students of color also confronted Nicholas Christakis -- in a video that has since been shared thousands of times on the Internet -- and accused him of not wanting to create a "safe space" for all students. Several of the students called for Christakis and his wife to resign from their posts at the university.

Samantha Harris, attorney and directory of police research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE], described Erika Christakis' note to students as a "thoughtfully-worded e-mail" that invited open, intellectual dialogue.

"Demanding that someone step down for expressing an opinion for which you disagree is patently illiberal," Harris told FoxNews.com.

"The idea that people have the right to absolute emotional comfort at all times is very troubling," she said. "And it's anti-intellectual."

"This is destructive to the university as a place for debate and the pursuit of truth," added Volokh. "If we allow this to happen -- as citizens, as alumni -- the results will be very bad for higher education and for the country."

"What I would say to people on the left, I would remind them that so many of the movements they hold dear got where they got because of free speech -- like the Civil Rights movement," he said. "The more you try to insulate yourself from contrary ideas, the weaker your arguments are going to be."

At the University of Missouri, meanwhile, racially-charged protests also led to the demand for "safe spaces"-- and energized students at other colleges, like Yale and Michigan, to advocate better treatment for black students. Missouri's president resigned Monday after protesters accused him of ignoring racial attacks on students.

Interim University of Missouri system's president Mike Middleton said he advocates such so-called safe zones but noted schools must walk a "delicate balance" between safe spaces and free speech rights.

"I think safe spaces are critical," Middleton said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. "I think students need spaces where they can feel comfortable. Where they can interact without fear."

"But I think if you’re asking in the context of first amendment and free speech issues, it’s a very delicate balance. Both are essential to our way of life in this country and the trick is to find that balance, the point where you are accommodating both interests as much as you can," Middleton said.

Other legal experts, like famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, went even further in criticizing the creation of safe zones on college campuses, arguing a "fog of fascism is descending quickly over many American universities."

"These are the same people who claim they are seeking diversity," Dershowitz told Fox News Thursday. "The last thing these students want is real diversity, diversity of ideas. They may want superficial diversity, diversity of gender, diversity of color, but they do not want diversity of ideas."

"It is the worst kind of hypocrisy," noted Dershowitz. "They want complete control over their personal lives, over their sex lives, over the use of drugs, but they want mommy and daddy dean to please give them a safe place, to protect them from ideas that maybe are insensitive, maybe will make them think."

"It is free speech for me, but not for thee," he said. "Universities should not tolerate this kind of hypocrisy, double standard."