Last week, FIRE sent a letter to California’s Crafton Hills College (CHC) cautioning the college about the threat to academic freedom posed by a content warning that will be now included on the syllabus of an English course about graphic novels. This week, FIRE’s warning has been reinforced by a powerful coalition letter sent to CHC.
As the Redland Daily Facts reported earlier this month, student Tara Shultz and her parents sharply criticized the college for the inclusion of certain graphic novels in an English course on graphic novels. Shultz called the critically acclaimed books—Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi; Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel; Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1, by Brian Vaughan; and The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman—”garbage” and said she wanted them “eradicated from the system.”
Most worryingly, Shultz demanded “at least” a warning on the books—and Crafton Hills College has complied. The Daily Facts reports that a disclaimer will be placed on the course syllabus in the future.
In the letter sent yesterday, a coalition of groups concerned with freedom of expression articulated grave concerns about the impact of the disclaimer, arguing that any such warnings “pose a significant threat to the methods and goals of higher education.” Signed by representatives of the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Association of University Professors, the American Booksellers for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Council of Teachers of English, and PEN American Center, the letter argues that “[e]ven a ‘voluntary’ warning issued in response to this complaint would be ill-advised”:
Acceding to one student’s request for warnings will invariably invite other objections to the same content in other courses, or to other kinds of content, as well as create an expectation that the college will also accede to their requests. What may appear as a “voluntary” accommodation by one instructor to address the demands of one student could quickly become the expected norm for many other courses.
We strongly urge the college not to set a dangerous precedent by adopting a general warning or disclaimer for this or any other course, but to leave the question of students’ sensitivities and preferences to be addressed on a case by case basis in discussions between individual students and faculty. This approach would defer to the professional judgment of the faculty with regard to the selection of educational materials, recognize the collective interest of the entire community in academic freedom, and respect the agency of adult students who are, after all, getting an education to help prepare for life in a world that doesn’t come with warnings.
FIRE strongly agrees. As we noted in our letter sent last week:
We remind you that confronting challenging and uncomfortable topics is often necessary to master the subject matter at hand. History, literature, and many other disciplines require engaging with topics that may be deeply unsettling. Mandating the use of trigger warnings creates the risk that faculty members may avoid challenging issues altogether—leaving students with a troublingly and profoundly incomplete education. Such a risk runs counter to the purpose and mission of higher education and redounds to the detriment of all.
We greatly appreciate the coalition’s letter to Crafton Hills College, and we’ll keep you posted here on The Torch as to any response we receive to our letter.