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May 27 2014

Mandated Trigger Warnings Threaten Free Speech and Common Sense

trigger warning

A new trend rising among liberal colleges and their oh-so-progressive students is that of a mandated trigger warning – a warning system for potentially offensive or emotional material. The idea behind it is that sometimes materials found on a college syllabus could induce, create, or revive trauma. The use of trigger warnings first appeared in social justice and feminist crowds when discussing issues of rape or domestic violence and later spread to online self-help and support groups for things like grief, substance abuse, or anorexia.

Arguably, students on college campuses are at least 18 and, as legal adults, should realize that sooner or later they might stumble upon something emotional during one of their classes. However, University of Santa Barbara (UCSB) junior Bailey Loverin says, “It’s really not anyone else’s business to tell someone when they are mentally and emotionally ready to deal with things.” So to combat this, she authored a resolution to mandate trigger warnings for all UCSB classes – essentially telling students, “Yeah, you’re probably not going to be able to handle this” instead of letting common sense reign.

Loverin does make a compelling point, in that one in four college women will be sexually assaulted during her academic career, one in four will also fall victim to domestic violence, and one in thirty-three men will be the victim of rape or attempted rape. However, that is a societal and moral issue – not one of trigger warnings. If someone has such an experience, most college campuses are outfitted with free mental health clinics staffed by therapists trained in dealing with these issues.

Trigger warning!

Trigger warning!


Loverin and friends have also proposed developing a list of potential triggers based on lists provided by social justice bloggers which include everything from depictions of medical procedures, swearing, and snakes, to spiders, skulls, and “non-vanilla shaming,” whatever that is. Some lists go so far as to even warn people about possible eye contact and animals in wigs.

Six other liberal colleges have seen student requests for trigger warnings this year. Some of these schools have already began offering trigger warnings for “graphic descriptions of gore,” “racially offensive,” or “misogynistic” book passages in classic literature. In fact, The Great Gatsby was recently added to Rutger’s no-no list.

If there’s any question of how this may affect free speech, one must look no further than Oberlin College. Oberlin has its own faculty resource guide which blatantly tells faculty to remove possible triggering material from their syllabuses unless the material contributes “directly” to learning goals. Just days after the resolution for mandated warnings passed, a professor actually pushed a pro-life student protester and took the student’s sign. The professor argued that it was within her right to do so because the material on the poster was “triggering.”

Seeing the danger such a mandate poses to free speech, some professors have been vocal in opposing the warnings. They argue that they prefer to treat their students like adults. Others argue that trigger warnings can, by themselves, be triggering. Still others point out possible legal implications for such a mandate. Could a student sue a teacher or university for “triggering material” not labeled as such? Furthermore, how is a professor to determine all possible triggers for any group of students? Due to such criticism, Oberlin has created a special task force to help them amend their policy. Loverin’s resolution at UCSB, however, continues full steam ahead.

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