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Headline Reading ‘Trigger Warning’ Apparently Not Enough Warning for Purportedly Triggering Poster

As FIRE has argued before, trigger warnings can significantly chill discussion of difficult or controversial topics and are an inadequate solution for students who might actually deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. We like to think we’re pretty persuasive on our own, but sometimes it takes a completely ridiculous real-life story to drive our points home. Luckily for us, students at Knox College in Illinois have provided us with one.

The college’s student newspaper, The Knox Student, reported on the issue of whether there should be guidelines for materials posted around campus. Here’s what spurred the debate:

Conversations about a policy to regulate posters placed around campus started after student concerns were brought to Student Senate and the administration about posters that were found earlier this year that could potentially trigger survivors of sexual assault.

Some of these posters proclaimed “It’s Rape” in large letters, going on to explain consent, while others were headed with “Trigger Warning” and accompanied by a story of someone’s sexual assault. These posters ended with an email that people could send their stories to.

In response to these posters, Student Senate wrote an open letter to campus in last week’s issue of TKS, wishing to make clear that they supported the person posting these stories and did not want to silence them while encouraging these individual[s] to consider that their posters could be triggering to students on campus.

It sounds like the individual responsible did consider that the posters might be “triggering”—hence the header that read “Trigger Warning.” If that’s not adequate, then no number of disclaimers to the contrary can change the fact that students do, in fact, want to silence speech, or at least keep it somewhere it is far less likely to be seen.

Title IX Coordinator Kim Schrader, too, claimed to value free speech while pointing out that “signage can be triggering and it’s important that we’re respectful and caring of people who are survivor-victims.” Associate Dean of Students and Title IX Deputy Coordinator Laura Schnack suggested that “even if a [posting] policy was not put in place, guidelines might be helpful for the community to clarify expectations on what is appropriate.” In other words, instead of threatening speech explicitly, expression will simply be chilled by statements about what is “appropriate.”

This would not be an acceptable result at an institution that presents itself as a place where students can speak freely. Knox is a private school, so it is not legally bound by the First Amendment. Its General Standards of Conduct, however, state that no member of the Knox community may “interfer[e] with a member’s freedom to hear, study, or express through writing, speech, or protest unpopular and controversial views on intellectual and public issues.” Accordingly, students at Knox have a reasonable expectation that they will be free to express themselves on campus.

The content of the posters, in particular, makes this story remarkable. The question of what consent is and how colleges and universities should be handling allegations of sexual assault has been hotly debated across the country in recent years, particularly in 2014. Does Knox College really want to hinder conversations about these topics by suggesting, through policy or “guidelines,” that a discussion about consent is not “appropriate” in public spaces?

FIRE often sees students confuse physical safety—an understandable priority—with emotional comfort, which students must often forego if they wish to expose themselves to new ideas and challenge themselves intellectually. Here, too, it’s important to remember the distinction. The Knox Student relayed one student’s worries about the posters:

Student Senate Vice President and senior Robert Turski said that some students were frightened or felt targeted by the posters.

“The poster that said ‘It’s Rape’ was scary, frankly. It was frightening. It sent a very strange tone on campus,” he said. “I know that some people felt weirdly targeted, I know that there was one put on the door of each frat house.”

Things have really come full circle when a community is considering censorship because students feel “frightened” and “targeted” by anti-rape and pro-victim advocacy. Turski stated that he is opposed to censorship and would support only a “very, very loose set of guidelines.” Given how easily vague policies can be abused, we hope he means a very tight set of guidelines on a very narrow swath of expression. Speech must not be censored just because it is “scary,” unless it constitutes a true threat or falls into another category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment.

According to The Knox Student, Diversity Chair and junior ChanTareya Paredes, who agreed that the posters were “triggering,” deferred to the masses on the question of whether there should be a posting policy:

“If the majority of the students wanted posters to start being screened, we as Student Senate would have to represent that regardless of our personal opinions,” she said.

Exactly wrong. An underlying principle of the First Amendment, the spirit of which is embodied in Knox’s conduct code, is that whether speech is protected should not be left to the whims of the majority or those in power on any given day.

Thankfully, some students appreciate the importance of open discourse and oppose restrictions on posters on campus. The Knox Student wrote, for example:

“I do not think that we should have a posting policy. I firmly, wholeheartedly believe that there should not be anything that you have to go through,” Health and Wellness Chair and junior Katie Mansfield said, noting that she feels that screening posters would violate students’ right to free speech.

FIRE hopes that Knox will uphold its community members’ rights to hear and debate even controversial ideas, and that it will decline to adopt posting policies that will restrict or chill protected speech.

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