Campus Free Speech

University of Chicago Attacked Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces. Did It Also Attack Academic Freedom?

The New Republic's Jeet Heer interprets Dean Ellison's comments-wrongly, I suspect.



The University of Chicago is drawing considerable praise from free speech advocates after it published a letter to incoming freshmen that criticized trigger warnings, safe spaces, and dis-invitations of controversial speakers.

"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own," wrote Dean of Students John Ellison.

I would characterize this as an unusually bold statement in support of academic freedom—in support of the right of professors and students to pursue uncomfortable learning without fear of administrative reprisals on behalf of offended persons.

The New Republic's Jeet Heer took the letter the opposite way. This wasn't a defense of academic freedom, he writes. This was an assault on academic freedom. I'll let Heer explain:

Ellison's letter is a perverse document. It's very much like the French Burkini ban: an illiberal policy justified in the name of liberal values. As CUNY historian Angus Johnston notes, "There's no college in the country where profs are required to give trigger warnings. They're all voluntary pedagogical choices. Which means a professor's use of trigger warnings isn't a threat to academic freedom. It's a MANIFESTATION of academic freedom."

Johnston is exactly on-point. Prior to Ellison's letter, University of Chicago professors had the right to use trigger warnings or not use them. Now, if a professor decides to use them, he or she will face administrative opposition. Academic freedom means that professors get to design their syllabus, not administrators like Ellison. His letter is a prime example of how the outcry against "political correctness" often leads to policy changes that limit free speech.

But is free speech really being limited here? Heer presumes that the university has essentially created a new policy: no trigger warnings. If that were the case, I would agree with Heer—telling professors that they aren't allowed to warn their students about offensive material does indeed violate the professors' freedom to control their classrooms.

I don't think that's what Ellison is saying, though. I don't take this statement to mean that trigger warnings are prohibited. He's not addressing the professors—he's addressing new students. And I think he's telling them—the students, that is—don't expect trigger warnings. That's a perfectly admirable statement.

I pointed this out to Heer on Twitter. He responded by suggesting that trigger warnings are a moral panic: there is no campus that has made them mandatory, which means they aren't actually a threat to academic freedom.

That's absolutely true, but overlooks the fact that mandatory trigger warnings are one of the most common demands of student-activists. And according to one survey of public opinion, a clear majority of students agree with the activists that trigger warnings ought to be mandatory. Heer's own magazine, The New Republic, expressed concerns about this trend as recently as two years ago. Students' demands for obligatory content warnings in the classroom have only grown more fervent since then.

I think Ellison is telling these students that they won't get their way and shouldn't expect to, because their demands are antithetical to the kind of classroom environment the university wants to provide: one where free inquiry comes before emotional comfort.

Heer's interpretation is far less charitable. In any case, I've reached out to Ellison's office for clarification, and will post an update if I hear back.

Updated at 4:30 p.m.: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education confirmed with the university that its statement should not be read as a ban on trigger warnings.