Campus Free Speech

Trigger Warning: At Oxford, Squeamish Law Students Can Avoid Classes About Violence and Sex

Because we wouldn't want lawyers to understand the intricacies of controversial legal subjects.



Oxford University has joined American law schools in discouraging the teaching of uncomfortable subjects—such as laws relating to sexual violence. The university evidently sees no problem with humoring the emotional fragilities of its would-be lawyers and judges—rather than force them to confront what they fear, it would rather let them remain uneducated.

I previously reported on the testimony of Jeannie Suk, a Harvard University law professor who reports that teaching rape law has become an impossible task for many professors. Squeamish students—some of them victims of sexual assault—veto discussions of subjects that offend them. One professor, according to Suk, was asked by a student to stop using the word violate—as in "Does this conduct violate the law?"—because it was reminiscent of violence. Faced with such a minefield of potential triggers, many professors feel they have no choice but to skip over challenging subjects.

A similar climate is overtaking Oxford, according to The Daily Mail:

They are destined to be barristers and judges – but undergraduates studying law at Oxford are being told before lectures on cases involving violence or death that they can leave if they fear the content will be too 'distressing'.

The revelation marks the arrival from the US of 'trigger warnings' – the politically correct notion that students should be warned before they encounter material that could elicit a traumatic response.

Lecturers have been asked by the director of undergraduate studies for law to 'bear in mind' using trigger warnings when they give lectures containing 'potentially distressing' content.

One law student explained: 'Before the lectures on sexual offences – which included issues such as rape and sexual assault – we were warned that the content could be distressing, and were then given the opportunity to leave if we needed to.'

Warning students that they are about to encounter difficult material is one thing. Exempting them from studying it entirely is quite another. A university education should in some sense, require students to grapple with touchy subjects. And  it's obviously the case that law students who were accommodated every time a professor provoked them will be unprepared for law in the real world. Judges, attorneys, and prosecutors involved in sexual assault cases won't have the option of leaving the courtroom to protect themselves from exposure to potential triggers.