Trigger Warnings Before Trigger Warnings

November 26, 2014

By Harvey Silvergate at Forbes

These days it’s hard to talk about controversial issues. Just recently, the civil libertarian writer and social critic Wendy Kaminer was excoriated for certain words she said during a panel at her alma mater, Smith College. Ironically, the panel was about free speech. In her discussion of “hate speech,” Ms. Kaminer discussed what she calls “the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials.”When she got to the example of “the N-word,” she then pronounced the word in full; for this she suffered vile criticism. A student reporting on the panel for the independent student newspaper The Smith Sophian preceded a transcript of the panel discussion with a “trigger warning” to alert presumptively vulnerable readers that they were, if they read on, about to encounter words and ideas that might disturb them.

This is what we’ve come to.

But these depredations into what is supposed to be the rational society of academic learning and discussion actually have roots in the mid-1980s. I tried to explain my growing concerns about violations of academic freedom in the book I co-authored with Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania – The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (The Free Press, 1998). Cases similar to Ms. Kaminer’s were springing up around the country by then, and the year after we published our book, Professor Kors and I co-founded The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE,

One of FIRE’s first cases of consequence was a situation that allows the observer to peer deeply into the campus administrative psyche that drives so many of the deviations from academic freedom. When I wrote about the Kaminer fiasco in The Wall Street Journal, I received hundreds of emails from Smith alumnae and others who were shocked at this “new” campus culture of censorship. But something very similar happened to Columbia Law Professor George P. Fletcher in 1999; the campus culture remains largely unchanged, even if somewhat more deeply entrenched.
Professor Fletcher, a well-respected academic and author (see his long list of awards and publications here), did what most law professors do at the end of a term: he administered an exam based on real-life case examples. One of the exam questions dealt with sensitive topics like abortion and violence against women, and in response, several members of Fletcher’s class complained to, and received support from, other faculty members, for the proposition that the exam question constituted “harassment.”

David Leebron, then dean of Columbia Law School (and now president of Rice University), wrote a letter in which he condemned Professor Fletcher’s “mak[ing] light of a profound social problem, namely violence to women.” Dean Leebron then told Fletcher he would consult with General Counsel, as it “may be right that the content of an exam falls within the protection of what we in our community regard as academic freedom.”

Of course the exam question was clearly a core example of protected academic freedom, as I pointed out in my September 6, 2000 letter to Dean Leebron in my capacity as FIRE’s legal voice. I found it immensely troubling that some students, faculty, and administrators at one of the nation’s leading law schools even considered that this exam question might qualify as “harassment” or produce a “hostile environment” for female law students. No formal complaint was ever lodged against Professor Fletcher as a result of this incident, but he did not emerge unscathed; the faculty committee later rejected a proposal that Fletcher teach all first-year criminal law classes. Although Professor Fletcher – a leading scholar on criminal law – was undoubtedly overqualified to teach the class, the nasty accusation cast doubt on his capabilities, or at least on his appropriateness for the task.

The Fletcher incident was fifteen years ago, but the spirit of censorship of uncomfortable words and ideas remains today. In the aftermath of Wendy Kaminer’s use of the “n-word,” students claimed they felt “unsafe” or emotionally harmed by her words, hence the inserted “trigger warning” on the transcript of her remarks. And many colleges and universities have “speech codes” that ban, among other words and ideas, much that is clearly constitutionally protected in the “real world” outside of the campus. (Current FIRE president Greg Lukianoff discusses this phenomenon in detail in his new publication Freedom From Speech [Encounter Books, 2014].) Students actually get punished for saying things on campus that they have an absolutely clear constitutional right to say off campus. And then there are the “sensitivity training” and “orientation” sessions where students are encouraged, if not required, to adopt “correct” attitudes on hot-button issues of race, gender, and other controversial political, philosophical, and intellectual issues of the day – issues that are debated in the real world but indoctrinated on campus.

Yet institutions of higher education cannot – or at least should not – be spaces where students are insulated from all objectionable concepts, and where those who utter unpopular or challenging words and ideas have to fear repercussions (other than, of course, intellectual criticism and push-back). Certainly, the aspiring lawyers in Professor Fletcher’s criminal law class would not be protected from the realities of sexual violence in their future careers, particularly if they chose to be criminal defense lawyers. It is preposterous – and does students a severe disservice – to attempt to remove all arguably negative stimuli from the learning process. For one thing, that’s not learning.

Because of the extensive publicity surrounding such issues as hate speech, “microagressions,” and sexual assault on college campuses, it’s easy to get distracted from the true purpose of higher education. Surely it is time to rethink our priorities and focus our attention on giving young people an actual education – without bumper lanes.