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College Trump supporters are not calling for ‘safe spaces,’ despite claims by New York Times

Reporter ‘gravely offended by the implication’ she put words in sources’ mouths

The New York Times believes that students who support Donald Trump are calling for “safe spaces” in response to hostility from progressive students after the election.

But it won’t give any evidence that any such student used that phrase, and at least three students quoted in a story last week say the newspaper mischaracterized the campus climate.

The Dec. 8 news article by Anemona Hartocollis, which focuses on the University of Michigan, does not tiptoe around how to characterize what these students want.

As of Monday night it is still headlined “On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need ‘Safe Spaces,’” and the article body says:

Conservative students who voted for Mr. Trump say that even though their candidate won, their views are not respected. Some are adopting the language of the left, saying they need a “safe space” to express their opinions — a twist resented by left-leaning protesters.

Yet who are these students explicitly calling for a “safe space”? When I asked Hartocollis to source this claim, she responded that “I don’t understand your point.” She asked if I thought she “made it up.”

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When I reiterated that I just wanted to know who specifically told her they wanted “safe spaces,” Hartocollis said she was “gravely offended by the implication” that she put words in her sources’ mouths:

I spent two days in person and many more hours by phone interviewing conservatives at UMichigan and elsewhere for this story. Draw your own conclusions, Clearly, you have your own agenda, but I am not obliged to cater to it.

Hartocollis refused to elaborate her answer when I asked if perhaps a student who voted for Donald Trump had called for “safe spaces” but declined to be quoted, or whether she was citing secondhand reports.

Calls for open dialogue ‘misconstrued’ as safe-space demand

Among the University of Michigan students cited in Hartocollis’s article, none that I reached could corroborate her claim that Trump supporters are calling for safe spaces.

College Republicans Political Director Amanda Delekta, whose open letter criticizing the administration’s response to the election was prominently featured, told me she hasn’t called for safe spaces on campus.

“My call has been for open dialogue to foster a mutual respect on campus between people of different identities not safe spaces,” she said in an email:

All of the Trump supporters I know have more called for open dialogs to create understanding not safe spaces. We want to have conversations so we can explain our views and hear what people think, not keep to ourselves.

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Reebhel El-Hage, also quoted, told me he thought “a lot of the conservative backlash on campus has been misconstrued as calls for ‘safe spaces’ when in reality it is conservative students calling simply for open dialogue.”

In an email, El-Hage said he couldn’t think of “a single person that would answer ‘yes’” if he asked whether they wanted a safe space “to be able to discuss conservative ideas.”

MORECounseling, vigils, safe spaces – oh my!

“I think calling for students to have ‘safe spaces’ was the way the NYT interpreted our interviews with their reporter,” Enrique Zalamea, president of the UMich CRs, told me in an email. He did not personally know of anyone calling for safe spaces, either.

In Delekta’s open letter, which has been signed by more than 380 people so far, she claims the university is “perpetuating a hateful climate that makes students feel ashamed for voting for Donald Trump.”

She does not use the phrase “safe space” at all, rather asking the administration to encourage students to “respect and challenge one another’s opinions.”

The open letter is followed by “personal statements” by signatories. The closest any self-identified conservative student comes to asking for safe spaces is student Jillian Brooks:

This campus is constantly promoting creating a safe space for all minorities, but what about us? What about those of us who voted for Donald Trump?  I do not feel safe on this campus or in my classrooms sharing my political orientation or who I voted for without fear of being verbally attacked. It is unfair that on this “inclusive” campus, many students are feeling more excluded than ever.

Another UMich student cited by Hartocollis, Ibtihal Makki, called alleged Trump safe-spacers “ironic and hypocritical” and said they didn’t previously understand the need for safe spaces “because they never needed it.”

Yet when I asked her to clarify whether she has personally heard Trump supporters on campus calling for safe spaces, she simply referred me to a Michigan Daily article on Delekta’s open letter and personal statements, saying it had “ample information.” Makki declined to comment further on the record.

MORE: Black Harvard prof says safe spaces hurt minorities

The Daily article quotes one student, Molly Grant, who wrote she is wary of sharing her views on campus “because I fear for my safety.” She asked the administration to “care for the safety of all your students, including my fellow conservatives in this letter.”

Two other quoted students, Anna Giacomini and Joon Kim, did not respond to my queries.

Left-wing website changes wording after it’s challenged

After the Times published Hartocollis’s article, her unsourced claim was uncritically picked up by Salon, Gothamist and even Breitbart, the alleged house organ of Trumpism.

Gothamist, a New York-focused blog, went the furthest with its headline: “College Trumpkins Now Require Safe Spaces To Celebrate Dear Leader.”

Two U.K.-based newspapers wrote about Delekta’s open letter after Hartocollis’s article was published, without citing the Times.

daily-mail-trump-safe-space

The Independent claims in both headline and body that Delekta is calling for safe spaces. The Daily Mail said Trump-voting students including Delekta were calling for safe spaces, and included Makki’s quote from the Times that conservative students are “ironic and hypocritical.”

Only one of those publications has reconsidered the factuality of Hartocollis’s words.

Less than 24 hours after I asked Salon about regurgitating the article’s central claim, it changed the title of its article from “Donald Trump’s college supporters think they should have safe spaces” to “Maybe Donald Trump’s college supporters should have safe spaces.”

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The Salon article now ends with “This post has been updated, and the headline modified.” Neither author Grace Guarnieri nor Salon public relations responded to my inquiries.

After I asked the Daily Mail for comment on its safe-space claims, Assistant Managing Editor Marnie Mclean told me the newspaper is reviewing the article. Neither Independent author Caroline Mortimer nor its public relations has responded.

MORE: Northwestern plans to quadruple safe spaces for black students

For now, the Times is standing by its unsourced portrayal of Trump-supporting students as calling for safe spaces.

Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of communications, told me in an email: “We are confident in the accuracy of our story and stand by it.” After I told her what I had dug up from Hartocollis’s own sources, she declined to comment further.

For the many Times readers who scroll past headlines without reading the full articles, its report perpetuates a false characterization of conservative students’ own words.

Trump supporters are not calling for safe spaces in the way they are widely understood. Journalists such as Hartocollis appear to think their calls for open dialogue are code for “safe spaces,” but are unwilling to say so explicitly.

To make the least popular students on campus look like yappy coddled millennials, without any supporting evidence, suggests to me the Times was more interested in clicks than well-sourced reporting.

MORE: Colleges erect ball pits to offer students safe spaces

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About the Author
Toni Airaksinen -- Barnard College

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