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Mandatory Trigger Warnings, Part Two

By September 1, 2016

Yesterday, I reported on several university Title IX/sexual misconduct policies I found that appear to require professors to use trigger warnings. This discovery runs contrary to the assertionmade in the wake of the University of Chicago’s recent denunciation of trigger warningsthat no university has ever mandated their use. Specifically, language in force at Drexel University and several other institutions states that “[i]t is expected that instructors will offer appropriate warning and accommodation regarding the introduction of explicit and triggering materials used.”

City University of New York (CUNY) professor Angus Johnston disagrees that this language is mandatory. Johnston suggests that in context, the term “expected” more likely means “hoped-for but not compelled.” In my experience, however, the language of “expectation”—particularly found in an official university policy—amounts to an enforceable mandate. This is not to say that every faculty member who fails to use a trigger warning will be disciplined; campus speech codes are rarely enforced across the board. The concern, rather, is that any faculty member who fails to use a trigger warning could be disciplined on those grounds if the university decides that he or she has become an inconvenience.

Nowhere is this concern more real than in the context of Title IX, where universities are under tremendous pressure from the federal government to address sexual harassment on campus. This pressure, more than anything else I’ve seen in my 11 years at FIRE, has had a direct impact on the free speech rights and academic freedom of faculty:

  • At the University of Denver, Professor Arthur Gilbert was the subject of a harassment claim for his teaching in a graduate course on the drug war. The course included a section on “Drugs and Sin in American Life: From Masturbation and Prostitution to Alcohol and Drugs.” Despite objections from FIRE, the American Association of University Professors, and the university’s own faculty senate, the university refused to overturn the harassment finding.
  • Former Rowan College professor Dawn Tawwater was terminated after students complained about her in-class speech. They were upset about her occasional use of profanity in the classroom and about the fact that she had shown a feminist parody of the song “Blurred Lines,” entitled “Defined Lines.” The video for “Blurred Lines,” which was widely decried as sexist, featured scantily clad women. The “Defined Lines” video reversed these roles, featuring men in their underwear.
  • Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis published a critique of campus sexual politics in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Based on that essay and a subsequent, related tweet, the university investigated Kipnis under Title IX. The investigation dragged on, leaving Kipnis’ future uncertain, until she published a second, scathing essay entitled “My Title IX Inquisition,” after which the university cleared her of wrongdoing.

In this environment, if I were a faculty member reading a university Title IX policy saying I was “expected” to include trigger warnings in my classroom—and suggesting that my failure to do so might be a form of harassment (why else would it be, as it is at Drexel, found in the harassment policy?)—I would not interpret that as some kind of friendly suggestion.

Thus far, the five institutions we identified yesterday are the only ones we know of to maintain written policies explicitly requiring trigger warnings. But one thing I have seen in my time at FIRE is that for every university with a formal, written policy, there are likely numerous others with unwritten policies, or policies that simply didn’t make it onto the Internet. So if you are a faculty member who has been required by your administration—through a written policy or otherwise—to employ content warnings in the classroom, we want to hear from you. Email us at triggerwarnings@thefire.org with your story.

Schools: Drexel University