Free Speech Series

How ‘trigger warnings’ spark debate in higher education

Yuki Mizuma | Staff Photographer

"Trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" sometimes conflict with free speech, some say.

Editor’s Note: Over the past month, The Daily Orange has collaborated with the Department of Newspaper and Online Journalism at Syracuse University on a series of stories relating to free speech. 

When the academic year began last August, the University of Chicago, whose neoclassical buildings stand within sight of Lake Michigan, received special recognition in a nationwide debate over what can be said on campus, by declaring it would not protect its 14,000 students from verbal free expression, no matter how detrimental.

The statement, written in a letter by the dean of students to the university’s incoming freshman class, said the university, one of the most prestigious in the nation, would not shield its students from controversial ideas. Dean Jay Ellison said the university would not turn away controversial speakers nor hinder the discussion of ideas that some students may find offensive.

Ellison’s letter marked the second time in the past two years that the university said it would notably defend freedom of speech. The previous document, known as “The Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” declared in favor of robust, intellectual debate on campus.

“In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” the report stated.

Both documents have earned Chicago top praise from an emerging campus free speech watchdog- whose acronym, FIRE, stands for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Ranking over 400 of the nation’s finest universities, FIRE utilizes a red, yellow and green traffic light system to formulate their opinion of the extent to which free speech is hindered or encouraged at a specific institution. Schools receiving green light ratings maintain policies that do not threaten free speech meanwhile a red light school has at least one policy that immensely limits free speech; however, receiving a green light rating does not indicate that a school actively supports free speech.

“Our policy is excellent,” said Geoffrey Stone, professor of law at the university and Chair of the Freedom of Expression Committee. “But there is always a continuing need to educate students about the importance of free speech.”

FIRE also commended Chicago for its stance against “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” “Trigger warnings” are often used in academia to alert students of content that could be sensitive or upsetting to them, including topics of sexual assault, PTSD and other material deemed uncomfortable. “Safe spaces”, which are permanent designated locations on college campuses, allow students to discuss problems and concerns they share, shielding them from certain ideas and topics that don’t align with their own.

In a survey conducted by the National Coalition Against Censorship, 62 percent of those surveyed felt “trigger warnings” hurt their academic teachings. Over the past few years, there has been a rise of what many call the “culture of prevention,” aimed at shielding students from subjectively determined harmful material.

Jordi Pujol, author of a scholarly article on the safe space campus controversy, argued that a paradox was created when the public supported free speech but also advocated for boundaries of certain speech. In her opinion, safe spaces hurt democratic societies and create an immature atmosphere on campuses.

“We need to challenge our ideas. We need to listen to the others and think ‘Why does this guy hold these views?’, and listen to his reasons, trying to understand his view,” Pujol said via email. “In this way, through sincere and respectful dialogue we can modify our views, or if we are right, enrich and empower them.”

Following the the release of Ellison’s letter, The Chicago Maroon, the independent school newspaper for the university, printed an editorial in which 174 faculty members defended the importance of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on campus. Their letter argued that “trigger warnings” played a crucial role in establishing mutual respect in the classroom, something vital to the success of education. The letter was met with mixed responses, as some applauded the effort while others felt actions defying the university, such as this, only continued to coddle students.

Steven White, professor of medicine at the university, was one of the first professors to speak outwardly against his colleagues, writing his own follow-up letter. In his letter, White referred to the University as committed to “the life of the mind” and that “trigger warnings” present a threat to this mindset and a commitment to discussion.

“The “culture of prevention” is one being inculcated by those who wish to silence others, and to do so for their own ideological purposes. To change it we must first recognize it for what it is – a desire for power over others, so as to control thought and inquiry, to further the ends of those who seek that power, “ White said.

Student Government President Eric Holmberg said that while his university has gone to great lengths to stake out a definition of free speech, it also does need to be careful when entering national dialogue.

“Students, especially, should be skeptical of what they hear from their administrations,” Holmberg said. “Proclamations can actually just be posturing, as in the case of the infamous UChicago letter–it decried safe spaces and trigger warnings, but UChicago still has widespread safe space programs/trainings, and trigger warnings are in use in classrooms across campus.”

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