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Oklahoma Student Government Association urges state to mandate classroom ‘trigger warnings’

By July 25, 2017

According to a recent report, students in the Oklahoma Student Government Association — the organization that represents all students enrolled in Oklahoma colleges — recently passed a resolution asking state legislators to force professors to use “trigger warnings” in their classrooms. If implemented, such a law would imperil free speech and academic freedom in Oklahoma.

The College Fix says the resolution reads, in part:

The Oklahoma Student Government Association urges Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and the Oklahoma State Government to enact a state-wide policy which mandates the instructor of any course that may include triggering content to list trigger warnings on the syllabus along with a tentative date the content will be covered and provide written notification to students prior to the coverage of said content.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, trigger warnings can be defined as “explicit alerts that the material [students] are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them, or as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.” FIRE staff members have written before about the threat to free expression and academic freedom mandatory trigger warnings pose. Other organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors, also oppose mandatory trigger warnings in the classroom. A 2014 AAUP report states:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and … it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students. Although all faculty are affected by potential charges of this kind, non-tenured and contingent faculty are particularly at risk. In this way the demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, “chilly climate” for critical thinking in the classroom.

FIRE will oppose legislation in Oklahoma or any other state that would force professors to include trigger warnings in their classroom discussions or syllabi. FIRE believes that it should be up to professors, not state legislators (or university administrators), to determine how to discuss sensitive topics in their classroom. As we’ve written before:

FIRE’s position is that faculty should be allowed to use trigger warnings, like any other pedagogical tool, at their discretion. Making trigger warnings mandatory is an affront to a faculty member’s right to choose how to manage his or her classroom and approach topics in the manner they think best, based on best practices in their field and their own professional judgment and expertise. As we have also frequently noted, banning their use outright could have a similarly detrimental effect.

We’ll be sure to update our readers on any developments.