Imagine yourself as a first-year student walking through downtown Ottawa and enjoying acquainting yourself with the city after the orientation festivities have ended. Now, imagine seeing some of your orientation leaders coming toward you, their once warm and inviting orientation shirts replaced by something shocking and alarming.
This past week, orientation facilitators exchanged their bright and welcoming shirts for ones that read “FUCK SAFE SPACE” on the front, which served as an opening act for an equally obscene message on the back of their t-shirts that read “OR ME.”
Leslie Robertson, a local lawyer, took photos of the students and tweeted them. Carleton University’s Safe Space program has been in effect for a decade. Their primary mission is to reduce the presence of homophobia on campus. Safe Space has also been extended to include sexual harassment and assault prevention. According to the students, they wore the alternative shirts to criticize the university’s program, but to what end?
Carleton’s independent student paper, the Charlatan, reached out to one of the students – whose name has yet to be released – photographed wearing the shirt. This individual said that the shirts were designed to challenge what the orientation facilitators saw as the “coddling” of first year students. Specifically, the facilitator revealed that the main purpose of the shirts was to question the rule stating that facilitators should not swear in front of first year students.
There is an obvious gap between the message the facilitators intended and the message that was portrayed and perceived. In light of the recent charges brought up against a Carleton student who was found to have sexually assaulted three women working on campus, the shirts and their message offended quite a few people. It is the combination of these charges and the ambiguous message of the “FUCK SAFE SPACE” shirts that has led many students and local activists to speak out against the facilitators involved.
The back of the shirts is even more alarming than the message on the front. Having “OR ME” on the back does not support the students’ justification for wearing the shirts. While they argue that they were referencing the perceived coddling of first year students, it is easy for anyone who wasn’t involved in the creation of this slogan to connect this message with sexual assault. In association with “FUCK SAFE SPACE,” “OR ME” is an overt sexual reference. While speaking to a reporter, Robertson summed up what would surely be the reaction of the vast majority of those who saw the shirts: “you don’t really need context when you’re walking down the street and see that shirt; it makes you feel unsafe.”
Carleton’s administration quickly started an investigation into the origin of the shirts.This investigation, as well as its impending sanctions, was spurred by a demonstration that included at least 50 male and female students on the university campus. As a result, the facilitators have since written and submitted a public apology in which the shirts were recognized as “without a doubt inappropriate, inconsiderate, offensive and disgraceful.”
While the letter of apology made by the students is a good start to make amends, Carleton administrators should use this unfortunate event as a foundation for opening an ongoing dialogue about the importance of having a safe space on campus. Many constructive programs and initiatives could be implemented to educate students on the importance of establishing a safe environment for students. Students should be aware of the impacts of misguided activism – as with the shirts – that can have a serious effect on university culture.