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Responding to Faculty Resolution, American University Student Government Unanimously Endorses Trigger Warnings

Students at American University (AU) are at odds with faculty over whether trigger warnings help or hurt free speech on campus.

On Sunday, the AU undergraduate senate unanimously voted in favor of a bill formally endorsing trigger warnings, according to the campus newspaper, The Eagle.

The bill was a response to a resolution passed by AU’s faculty last month, which questioned the propriety of trigger warnings and, separately, vowed to strengthen free speech protections on campus. FIRE praised AU’s faculty for the move in a press release last month, citing it as a positive development in our effort to encourage colleges and universities nationwide to adopt the University of Chicago statement on free speech.

Inside Higher Ed reported on the faculty’s stance with regard to trigger warnings late last month:

The [faculty] resolution was not prompted by an incident at AU, but concerns -- especially among librarians -- that they might be asked in the future to provide such warnings.

‘As laws and individual sensitivities may seek to restrict, label, warn or exclude specific content, the academy must stand firm as a place that is open to diverse ideas and free expression. These are standards and principles that American University will not compromise,’ the resolution says. ‘Faculty may advise students before exposing them to controversial readings and other materials that are part of their curricula. However, the Faculty Senate does not endorse offering 'trigger warnings' or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to 'opt out' of engaging with texts or concepts, or otherwise not participating in intellectual inquiries.’

In contrast, the Eagle reports that the author of the student senate bill believes trigger warnings improve campus discourse:

“I believe that the faculty senate was confused as to what a trigger warning is, and that’s why I decided to pass the legislation,” [student senator Shannon] McDermott said.

She believes that trigger warnings facilitate free speech in classrooms, as they alert students to what will be discussed, giving those who might feel triggered by the material time to prepare.

According to the Eagle, neither the faculty resolution nor the student initiative will have an immediate impact on university policy.

The duelling resolutions come in the midst of a national debate about free speech on campus, spurred in part by the cover story for The Atlantic’s September issue, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” co-authored by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that by providing trigger warnings, universities reinforce bad intellectual habits by encouraging students to avoid engaging critically with difficult topics.

FIRE will continue to monitor this story as it develops.

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