The American University Student Government’s (AUSG’s) recent request that the university adopt a mandatory trigger warning policy may signal the beginning of an academic freedom battle between students and faculty at the Washington, D.C.-area campus. It may also represent the beginning of an uptick in similar requests by students on campuses nationwide. FIRE reiterates its long-held position that the imposition of mandatory trigger warnings poses a serious threat to academic freedom and freedom of expression.
As described in an Inside Higher Ed report today, AUSG announced the debut of its #LetUsLearn campaign via YouTube in September. According to AUSG’s post, the campaign is “aimed at pushing for the increased use of trigger warnings on syllabi in order to make [AU’s] academic spaces available to all students, especially those who have experienced trauma.”
The move counters last year’s unanimously-approved resolution from AU’s faculty senate, which formally asserted that the AU faculty “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 the immediate aftermath of that resolution, AU’s undergraduate senate pushed through its own unanimous bill formally endorsing the use of trigger warnings.
In this latest video, AUSG President Devontae Torriente said that as part of #LetUsLearn, he has reached out to the faculty senate in an attempt to “meet and begin to bridge the differences in understanding” about trigger warnings.
“We want to work together to create a campus-wide definition [and] to continue to make our academic spaces accessible to all students,” Torriente explains in the video. He adds that AUSG believes trigger warnings on syllabi should be mandatory so that students who need them in order to meaningfully participate in classroom activities are not excluded:
The fact of the matter is, trigger warnings are necessary in order to make our academic spaces accessible to all students, especially those who have experienced trauma.
In doing so, we uphold AU’s commitment to academic freedom and allow all students to participate in the exchange of ideas and discussion in the classroom. Without trigger warnings, students who have endured trauma such as interpersonal violence or experience post-traumatic stress disorder can be excluded from the classroom, negatively impacting their mental health and education.
You can watch Torriente’s comments in their entirety here:
FIRE debunked the frequent assertion that trigger warnings are never required when we found and reported this summer that there are at least five institutions that do so. (We also said we wanted to hear from those who knew of other higher education trigger warning requirements, and invite educators to contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
We have also written at length about the ways in which mandatory trigger warnings chill both student and faculty speech, and inhibit academic freedom.
In his 2014 book Freedom From Speech, FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff predicted a rise in student demands for mandatory trigger warnings. He’s pointed out that this could spell trouble for academic freedom, as professors may self-censor when they feel pressure from students to give trigger warnings. Greg told Inside Higher Ed last year that because professors cannot anticipate “everything someone might require a trigger warning for,” it puts “faculty members in a kind of impossible position.”
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 had previously noted one case in which the trigger warning-censorship connection was undeniable: In 2014, Oberlin College faculty objected to a mandatory trigger warning policy that admonished professors to “remove triggering material [from syllabi] when it doesn’t ‘directly’ contribute to learning goals.” Oberlin administrators subsequently promised to revise the policy.
FIRE hopes AUSG similarly rethinks its push for mandatory trigger warnings and that AU faculty remain steadfast in their commitment to upholding free speech and academic freedom at their university.