First Amendment Day at Chapel Hill Stirs Debate About “Trigger Warnings”

October 3, 2014

By Jesse Saffron at The John William Pope Center

At last week’s First Amendment Day celebration at UNC-Chapel Hill, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), presented some alarming findings: the demographic group most hostile to free speech is not baby boomers or other generations, but millennials, those in the 18-30 age range.

One of the panels earlier that day, “Speech that Hurts and the First Amendment,” suggested that he’s right. At least for some college students, freedom of speech takes a backseat to sensitivity.

“I am a fan of the First Amendment, but I do step in when the speech is hurtful,” said Destiny Planter, vice president of UNC’s Black Student Movement. One of three undergraduate students on the panel, she was not alone in her view. The other two students were also concerned that unfettered speech can create victims who, due to past negative experiences, will be psychologically and even physically affected by certain songs or books or disrespectful protesters or coarse words.

Much of the panelists’ discussion related to “trigger warnings.” Those are warnings that precede a writing assignment, class discussion, or campus event. They are designed to protect students from experiencing traumatic reactions to the content.

All three student panelists said that such warnings are necessary on college campuses.

The purpose of the panel, which also featured local First Amendment attorney Hugh Stevens, was to discuss recent campus events or significant cultural moments with free speech implications. It drew a crowd of about seventy students and professors.

Planter offered her thoughts on some of the racially charged social media reactions to the now-infamous police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Wilson Hood, managing editor of the Siren, a feminist magazine associated with UNC, discussed a recent anti-abortion protest that took place on campus. He described his attempts to “make the space as safe as possible” for students who didn’t want to see graphic images of aborted fetuses.

Trevor Dougherty, a musician and self-described student activist, commented on a controversy at a Chapel Hill bar. A disc jockey had played Pharrell’s and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” a pop hit considered by feminists to be a “rape anthem.” Dougherty and other students had taken offense to the song’s selection and called for a boycott of the watering hole.

As the discussion progressed it became apparent that the students (who had been selected by the journalism professor who organized the event) were all leftist “progressives” more passionate about “social justice” and supporting an offended campus constituency than championing free speech.

A few students in the crowd, as well as panelist Hood, wanted to know if anything can be done to protect “people on campus who are sensitive to violent pictures and words,” or if there are legal remedies for offended parties.

Stevens, the attorney, did offer a remedy—more exercise of the First Amendment, not less. He told the students to counter “offensive” or “disagreeable” ideas by doing what Hood and Dougherty had done via their counter-protest and boycott: “[Use your] First Amendment rights to challenge the legitimacy of what was said or done.”

Many readers may be unfamiliar with the “trigger warnings” so readily accepted by the students. The term’sorigin can be traced to feminist and women’s self-help Internet circles. The warnings were designed to moderate online forums and help the mentally ill and other readers avoid having post-traumatic stress responses to graphic material.

The idea spread to other circles, gained traction at universities in California this year, and has now become a major policy topic at campuses across the country. In February, Oberlin College in Ohio issued a “guide” to professors, instructing them to be cognizant of how “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression” can affect class discussions and to “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”

Oberlin professors quickly protested and the policy was shelved, but at other universities, student pressure to mandate trigger warnings has intensified. Earlier this year, the student government at UC-Santa Barbara passed a “Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings,” which pressed professors to add trigger warnings to course syllabi containing materials related to rape, sexual assault, pornography, kidnapping, etc.

Students have pushed for trigger warnings at schools such as the University of Michigan, Wellesley College, George Washington University, and Rutgers University. At Rutgers, a student wrote an op-ed calling for trigger warnings for such classic literature as The Great Gatsby because it “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

When I asked the panelists if the latest emphasis on trigger warnings could eventually create an environment that threatens robust campus debate, I received some affirmative nods from the attorney, but the students returned to their previous talking points. The students agreed that it was necessary to raise “awareness” about the effects that some words and actions can have on students predisposed to severe stress and trauma. Stevens, however, said that in “his day,” when people were offended or put-off, they “got over it” and moved on, or just ignored the nuisance.

In my view, polite society requires that nobody willingly or intentionally scar or harm an individual. But mandating trigger warnings, however well-intentioned, represents a paternalistic shift toward dampening intellectual liveliness, which is a paramount feature of higher education.

Overall, UNC-Chapel Hill’s sixth annual First Amendment Day was a success. It was sponsored by the university’s Center for Media Law and Policy—a collaboration between the journalism school and the law school—and funded by Time Warner Cable. Hundreds of students attended the various events, and a packed auditorium hosted Greg Lukianoff’s keynote talk.

Lukianoff noted that a number of colleges have speech codes and other policies that are “laughably unconstitutional” and that muzzle free expression. He said that UNC-Chapel Hill is actually in a firmer constitutional position. It is on the verge of being “green lighted” by FIRE, meaning that the school’s policies have no unconstitutional provisions (it would become the only N.C. school with such a designation).

The best summation of the day, calling to mind the trigger warning discussion, came when Lukianoff quoted the Supreme Court in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957): “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill