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FIRE Cautions College About Graphic Novel Warnings

As has been reported recently, California’s Crafton Hills College (CHC) has been the scene of a controversy over the need for “trigger warnings” on college syllabi. In this case, the offending material consisted of four graphic novels (in an English course on graphic novels) whose content—including nudity, sexuality, violence, torture, and profanity—led student Tara Shultz, alongside her parents, to protest the materials’ inclusion in the curriculum. As the Redlands Daily Facts reported:

The four Shultz and her parents found offensive were “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel; “Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1” by Brian Vaughan; “The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House” by Neil Gaiman; and “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi.

“At least get a warning on the books,” Shultz said. “At most I would like the books eradicated from the system. I don’t want them taught anymore. I don’t want anyone else to have to read this garbage.”

The course’s professor will now place warnings about the content of the works on his course’s syllabus in future semesters, following discussions with Shultz, her parents, and the CHC administration.

The professor reportedly agreed voluntarily to the compromise, and FIRE doesn’t have sufficient cause to believe otherwise. But the episode is nonetheless troubling from an academic freedom perspective. In this kind of climate, how many professors will feel pressured to excise certain potentially offensive content from their courses to avoid bureaucratic hassles or—far worse—possible disciplinary complaints over their teaching?

In a letter sent yesterday, FIRE warned CHC president Cheryl Marshall to warn of this chilling effect. Our letter cites at length the American Association of University Professors’ 2014 “On Trigger Warnings” statement, which FIRE strongly endorses. We wrote:

Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens. Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education. They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education. The effect is to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who fear to raise questions that might make others “uncomfortable.”

The right to include warnings about a course’s content is fundamentally protected by academic freedom, and professors have done this at their discretion long before the current trigger warning debate. As we told CHC in our letter, however, faculty must not be compelled to use such warnings, and they may not be sanctioned for declining to do so, as is their right. FIRE will be watching CHC to make sure it gets the message.

FIRE Letter to Crafton Hills College, June 23, 2015

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