Statement on free speech, trigger warnings ratified

Chapman developed a statement on free speech and trigger warnings, which was ratified at the faculty senate meeting Sept. 18.

Trigger warnings are cautionary statements at the beginning of articles, documents or – in the case of a university – syllabuses that warn readers that the following information could potentially be offensive or disturbing. Recently, the implementation of these in academic syllabuses and course materials has become a national debate.

“It is not the proper role of the University, however, to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive,” Chapman’s statement reads.

Chapman’s statement is modeled after that of the University of Chicago’s, which said in January that it is not the university’s job to make students feel comfortable, but rather make them think.

Jerry Price, vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, said that controversial ideas promote learning.

“I believe that an educational environment by its nature is upsetting and knocks you off your balance, but that’s how you learn, because conflict breeds learning,” Price said. “It’s true that someone’s personal circumstances may have such a traumatizing past that the material might upset them, so we should try to take action accordingly.”

The University of California, Santa Barbara was the first to propose mandatory trigger warnings. Last year, the university passed a resolution asking professors to require mandatory trigger warnings on class syllabuses and to excuse the absence of students who are uncomfortable with “content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

However, Price noted the 1967 Supreme Court ruling Keyishian v. Board of Regents, which emphasized protection of free speech on university campuses.

“Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned,” the court ruling reads. “That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

When it comes to putting trigger warnings at the beginning of class syllabuses, Price said that it is up to the professor’s discretion, but wants to be wary of inhibiting students’ right to free speech.

“(The university campus) is where we have the most intense debate over the widest range of ideas, and if we start limiting speech on college campuses, it’s bad for the country,” Price said.

Ronald Rotunda, a professor at the Fowler School of Law, agrees that it is not Chapman’s job to police speech for professors teaching classes.

“The university is supposed to expose you to different things, and if you don’t like it, you can respond back,” Rotunda said. “We’re supposed to prepare you for the real world. The outside world is not a sand play box, and the 3-year-olds in the sandbox aren’t very nice to each other sometimes. Students in college are adults, and we should treat them as adults and not children.”

Chancellor Daniele Struppa added that professors do need to be sensitive if they are teaching potentially offensive subjects.

“I am not favorable to any official form of trigger warnings,” Struppa wrote in an email. “I think teachers should be sensitive to the introduction of difficult materials, and should use their discretion in alerting students when presenting such materials. But in principle, I believe that students need to know that in a learning setting, and in particular in a university, there will always be the danger of being exposed to ideas, images, speech, that is either offensive of emotionally powerful. This is the nature of any learning community.”

However, the American Historian Association defended trigger warnings on its website by highlighting the emotional challenges a traumatized student must face.

“It’s worth remembering that the life stories of contemporary college students are more varied and complex than those of previous generations of undergraduates,” Hostos Community College history professor Angus Johnston wrote on the website. “Engaging with that reaction is properly an aspect of my role as a professor.”

Struppa hopes that this statement will encourage students to voice views that may go against majority opinions, while knowing that the university respects their views.

“We don’t need free speech to say that we love our mom,” Struppa said. “But we need free speech when our ideas are not supported by our community.”

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