Ohio State Turns the Concept of 'Safe Space' Against Student Protesters

Activists were cleared from a building by officials who claimed that they were making university employees feel scared.

At Ohio State last week, a sit-in and protest inside a university building was cut short when students were warned that they would be forcibly removed by police, arrested, and possibly expelled if they did not vacate the premises within a few hours, by 5 a.m.

Here’s video of an administrative messenger relaying the warning to the protesters:

I’m usually skeptical of any decision to call the police on peaceful protesters or to expel students. The video itself doesn’t display any evidence that such actions were justified in this case, although the full facts of the incident are still emerging. And there’s a chance the administrators were bluffing.

Regardless, this video is noteworthy for two reasons. The first is the manner adopted by the main messenger, which is a common one for real-world authority figures—he is respectful, blunt, and not particularly apologetic or deferential—but I do not recall seeing other college administrators adopt it. His words:

If you are students, and I think the vast majority of you are, I want you to understand that you are violating the student code of conduct. As dictated to me by [university president] Dr. Drake 15 minutes ago to me on the phone, we have chosen to try to work with you this evening because we respect you. This is your university.

And we want to have dialogue. We want the dialogue to extend beyond tonight. But if you refuse to leave, then you will be charged with a student code of conduct violation.And I’m telling you this now because I want you to have good thought and careful consideration. If you’re here at 5 a.m. we will clear the building and you will be arrested. And we will give you the opportunity to go to jail for your beliefs. Our police officers will physically pick you up, take you to a paddywagon, and take you to be jail.

Lots of college administrators decide to clear protests with force—recall the pepper-spraying cop at UC Davis, for example—but taking a preemptive, hardline position, bluntly and transparently, is a striking departure from other occupations I’ve seen.

But I’m equally fascinated by the justification that the university’s messenger offers to the students to explain why Ohio State leaders decided on the hardline approach: He accuses the students of denying a safe space to the workers in the building!

Here’s how he put it:

Our goal, because I want you to understand why we would do something like this—I didn’t think we were going to—but the consensus of university leaders is that the people who work in this building should be protected also.

They come to work around 7 o’clock. Do you remember when you all made the rush down there and chanted to the folks outside the doors a minute ago?

That scared people.

That elicited disbelief from protesters. Who was scared, they scoffed, the police officers with guns? Said the university messenger, “If you refuse to understand what I’m trying to tell you—I’m not going to answer that question,” meaning he refused to say who it scared. Soon after, his sidekick steps in, saying, “It would scare employees who are wanting to do their work in this building.” Added the first messenger, “The employees who work past five o’clock left early this evening. Do you know why? Because they were scared you were going to do something.”

Said messenger two, “That’s the truth you guys. I talked to several of them when they walked out of here.” Their consensus position: “The people in this building have a right to a safe environment, and to an environment where their jobs won’t be interrupted.”

Appealing to the safety and fear of staff in this way is something else I’ve never seen. But I suspect that it will be used against student protesters in the future. In my work defending free speech, I’ve repeatedly noted how speech codes implemented in the late 1980s and early 90s with the intention of protecting black students were ultimately used to charge and punish more black students than white students.

Insofar as campus concepts like safe spaces, microaggressions, and claims of trauma over minor altercations spread from activist culture to campus culture, the powerful will inevitably make use of them. Where sensitivity to harm and subjective discomfort are king, and denying someone “a safe space” is verboten, folks standing in groups, confrontationally shouting out demands, will not fare well. When convenient, administrators will declare them scary and unfit for the safe space, exploiting how verboten it is to challenge anyone who says they feel afraid.

In cases like this one, it won’t matter that one of the least scary experiences in the world is walking into a university administration building at 7 a.m., well-rested and ready for work, to be greeted by a bunch of exhausted 18-year-old OSU students groggily looking up from the corner where they curled up with college hoodies as pillows. After years of reporting on occupations like this one, I’ve never heard of even one case of a college staff member of administrator coming away with even a scratch. Yet in the name of preserving “safe space,” these protesters were evicted.