‘Trigger Warnings’ Prevent Professors From Teaching Rape Law

December 17, 2014

By Ashley Dobson at Red Alert Politics

The anti-rape culture movement and an excessive need for “trigger warnings” are preventing law professors from doing their job, one professor says.

Jeannie Suk, a professor of law at Harvard University, recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker that argues against trigger warning policies which infringe on instructors’ academic freedom and deny students the opportunity to learn about an important area of the law.

Suk said that it has become almost impossible to teach rape law in the classroom because of possibly offending or “triggering” students.

From Suk’s piece:

“Students seem more anxious about classroom discussion, and about approaching the law of sexual violence in particular, than they have ever been in my eight years as a law professor. Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.

When I teach rape law, I don’t dwell on cases in which everyone will agree that the defendant is guilty. Instead, I focus on cases that test the limits of the rules, and that fall near the rapidly shifting line separating criminal conduct from legal sex. These cases involve people who previously knew each other and who perhaps even previously had sex. They cover situations in which the meaning of each party’s actions, signals, and desires may have been ambiguous to the other, or misapprehended by one or both sides. We ask questions like: How should consent or non-consent be communicated? Should it matter whether the accused realized that the complainant felt coerced? What information about the accused and the complainant is relevant to whether or not they should be believed? How does social inequality inform how we evaluate whether a particular incident was a crime? I often assign students roles in which they have to argue a side—defense or prosecution—with which they might disagree.

These pedagogical tactics are common to almost every law-school topic and classroom. But asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject.”

Susan Kruth at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education finds it  “profoundly troubling that faculty at institutions of higher education—supposedly “elite” schools, no less!—would be forced even to consider not teaching such a critically important subject at the behest of those insisting on emotional comfort.”

“It’s true that rape is not an easy topic of discussion, like many of the topics included in criminal law classes. Crime is exceedingly unpleasant (my first week of law school was spent reading about murdered babies), and this will never change. It defies reason to exempt discussions of rape, perhaps the second-most serious crime (after murder), from what is intended to be a meaningful survey of the law,” she wrote.

Not only is this practice outrageous, it also hurts rape victims in the end. If schools are not teaching rape law, there will be a dearth of lawyers and judges equipped to handle those cases.

“If providing students with the knowledge and skills to become excellent lawyers is no longer to be prioritized over comfort, future generations of lawyers may be spared the emotional discomfort that comes with learning about Korematsu v. United States (1944) or Plessy v. Ferguson (1896),” Kruth wrote. “Of course, they also won’t be able to recognize the signs if history is about to repeat itself.”

Schools: Harvard University