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.

|

Chicago
Rdsmith4

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.

NEXT: A warning against trigger warnings

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I don’t think that’s what Ellison is saying, though.

    Of course it’s not what he was saying. It’s pretty clear why Heer is pretending it is.

    1. It’s pretty clear why Heer is pretending it is.

      Because he’s a mendacious, lying cockstain?

      1. Sometimes a little bit of pretending is necessary when challenging an assault on the fundamental choices we’ve made as a nation. The announced policy is deeply troubling, for it leaves sensitive students and professors alike unprotected from speech that can (1) make them feel unsafe and, even worse, (2) seriously damage (however truthfully) the reputations of distinguished members of the academic community. Would the deans and dons of the University of Chicago tolerate inappropriately deadpan “Gmail confession parodies” sent around campus in their names? Surely they wouldn’t endorse the outrageous “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated, liberal judge in America’s leading criminal “satire” case? See the documentation at:

        http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

    2. So Jeet Heer is an idjit. In other late-breaking news, water is wet.

  2. “Jeet heer,” croaked the wizened dwarf, holding out a polished abalone shell, eager to catch the semen soon to gout from purple head of the barbarian’s horribly abused penis.

  3. I’ve made $64,000 so far this year working online and I’m a full time student. Im using an online business opportunity I heard about and I’ve made such great money. It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it. Heres what I do,

    ———— http://YoutubeJobs.Nypost55.com

  4. Hearing a Cankles speech now. It is absolutely incredible. The woman is incapable of telling the truth.

    She is trying hard to paint Trump as a racist, talking about him as if he were Bull Connor. One of her examples : He even tried to say that our first black president is not a citizen. Let that sink in.

    Mendacious bitch.

    1. Of course, she had no problem taking that racists money and attending his daughter’s wedding. And even less problem when he was on national TV defending her and her husband.

      1. I was hoping someone would pick up on it…she is the one who cooked up the birther business in the first place during her 2008 primary against Obama. Now she is accusing Trump of promoting a conspiracy that she invented herself.

    2. Didn’t her 2008 campaign hit that Obama’s not a citizen thing pretty hard at one point??

      1. They are the ones who invented it out of thin air, and yeah, they hit it pretty hard.

      2. She must truly believe that people really are THAT stupid. Unfortunately, I’m afraid she’s probably right.

        1. No, she truly believes most people who hear it have forgotten the history of the birther theory, and she presumes very few major media outlets are going to call her on her part in creating it. After all, it is only racist Republicans who would think of such a thing, you know?

          And she is undoubtedly correct about that.

  5. The New Republic used to be more interesting and accurate, even when it was publishing Stephen Glass’s fake articles.

    1. (which is an insult at the current editors, not praise of Glass)

  6. If Jeet Herr were ever right about anything ever before in the past, i am not aware of it.

  7. So is this the trend now? Trump softening on immigration policy? Soave admitting that all college campuses aren’t Mad Max-ian wastelands overrun with cannibal social justice motorcycle warrior gangs hunting down innocent White fraternity-bro STEM majors to enslave in the Thunderdome?

    1. WHO RUNS REASONTOWN?

      1. MasterCommenter run Reasontown………you forget that, you get embargo.

    2. “Two Bros Enter, One Bro Leaves, Bro.”

    3. Yep! Back to safe spaces, SJWs, trigger warnings, and the like being a non-issue.

      1. Like Bogart and Bergman will always have Paris, you’ll always have your moral panic.

        1. Moral Panic? So we are dealing in absolutes? I can only occupy “Panicked” or “Not-Panicked” in your eyes? Impossible for me to be skeptical and cautious? Impossible for you to have misjudged the situation?

          1. You know who else only dealt in absolutes…

            1. Darth Vader?

          2. You don’t get to use that many question marks unless your name is Andrew Peter Napolitano.

            But sorry for triggering you.

            1. Oh I am so triggered. You don’t even know.

    4. Remember, according to John every history course in every university refuses to teach anything about white men except the fact that they’re pure evil.

      Apparently I was just lucky to be in the one isolated bastion of true academic history…in a super-lefty university.

      1. If that is what John believes, then I say that goes too far, Chicken Little. But to deny there is a rising tide of aggrieved young entitled emotionalists, who are “listening [to] and believing” dried out old Marxists is willfully ignorant, in my view.

        1. Certainly, there’s definitely a bias towards the left-wing. But John acts like people push their pet political theories in fields and there’s no pushback against it. Tons of historians absolutely hate afrocentrists and ‘gender historians’ for producing complete falsehoods to prop their politics up, and there’s no ‘villify white men’ quota for history courses. In fact, ‘great man theory’ is actually somewhat making a comeback (or at least a comeback from being completely discredited).

          1. Are you trying to imply there’s a subject that John isn’t an expert in?

          2. So you think John is further along the “First they came for the X” track?

            1. No, the problem with John is that he’s the most tribalistic nutter on here. Everything has to be an existential war between Left and Right, no possibility of nuance. John, being on The Right, knows that all university professors have to be on The Left, and share the exact same positions, biases, assumptions and beliefs. Everyone involved in them has to be some version of a SJW, hardcore leftist stereotype.

              Instead of, say, my Asian nationalism professor, who would take potshots at Marxist nationalist theory, but loves Grammsci. Or the left-wing professor who introduced me to non-socialist anarchist literature/history. It’s almost like historians are cynical bastards or something. That’s not to say there isn’t leftist ideologues, but it’s fundamentally ignorant to paint all the social sciences with that brush.

              1. he’s the most tribalistic nutter on here.

                They don’t call him “Red Tony” for nothing.

      2. Mine had a required class that would have made Zinn proud, and that was more than 20 years ago at a state school. They also allowed a wide variety of social studies classes to fulfill that requirement, but made sure “Socialism in the 20th Century” was offered at a variety of times and places to conveniently work with your schedule and the other social science classes were offered in one place at an odd time. Go figure.

  8. The New Republic? The left is nothing if not mendacious. Despite what ol’ Jeet vomited up if his ilk had their way there would be no such thing as academic freedom in practice.

  9. I agree that Heer missed the point, and I also think he’s really stretching the definition of academic freedom to try and find fault with Ellison’s letter. If academic freedom means “absolutely no interference or suggestions from administrators on syllabi or pedagogy” then that was destroyed decades ago. Department level or higher administrators make syllabus requirements or push certain pedagogy all the time.

    Even if you take Ellison’s letter as the creation of a new “no trigger warnings allowed” policy, faculty would still be able to control all the assignments and content in their course, and could easily just say “hey guys, next week the material we’ll be covering goes over mature themes, so watch out.”

    1. SJW: “I need to be free to oppress those who disagree with meeeee!!!”

  10. 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 [sic] 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.”

    He’s wrong, so he finds someone else who is also wrong to back him up. Cute.

    1. Are we sure he doesn’t troll here sometimes?

      1. Who knows? Does he pay his mortgage?

    2. There’s no college in the country where profs are required to give trigger warnings.

      (1) Is that true? I don’t know.

      (2) There’s requirements written on college letterhead, and then there’s requirements that you will pay a price for if you don’t perform them. The advantage of the Chicago approach is that it strangles in the crib any demand for trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other student-imposed restrictions on academic freedom.

      1. A quick google shows that while rare, there are some formal policies.

        And 2) is always where they get you.

      2. The advantage of the Chicago approach is that it strangles in the crib any demand for trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other student-imposed restrictions on academic freedom.

        It, brilliantly, strangles them in the crib from people who have no business raising them while simultaneously preserving and/or not infringing on them for the people that do.

        The policy is literally that the University does not support them. Profs want to put them in their lectures and syllabuses? Sure. Students suggesting to Profs that they should be more sensitive to their audience when covering certain social material? NBD. Students demanding trigger warnings in course descriptions? Fuck off.

        Unless the course is titled ‘101 ways to rape women and murder Jews’, it probably doesn’t need a trigger warning. If the course *is* titled ‘101 ways to rape women and murder Jews’, you’ve been sufficiently warned. If the course is titled ‘Economics 101: Mathematics for Finance’ and the syllabus is comprised of raping women and murdering Jews, then you have bigger issues than just triggers. Many of which are already covered by law.

  11. 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.

    Even if you agree that trigger warnings are part of the syllabus, which I don’t, colleges regularly monitor and control the actual content of their classes and conduct of their professors. And SJW activists regularly attempt to control the content of those classes through the complaint process. It’s not academic freedom they want, it’s academic control.

    1. This. I don’t use trigger warnings because my courses don’t need them. That isn’t stopping SJW’s from trying their damnedest to politicize even engineering courses….

      1. “Trigger warning: Today’s Mechanical Engineering class will be looking at trigger mechanisms.”

        1. *perks up*

          Oh yeah? I was just looking at this one this morning :

          http://www.bighornarmory.com/c…..0-sandw-2/

          Seriously, I think I am in love. I will let y’all know.

          1. The wood looks beautiful on that one.

            1. I think that example is the highest grade wood. It comes in three grades but even the lowest one is better than most of what you normally see in Joe Shmoe’s gun shop.

              I am having trouble deciding…Stainless? Anodized black? long or short barrel?

              Decisions, decisions…

              *I am wondering if I really need another gunpowder hog. I already have 6 calibers that burn gunpowder by the cup.

      2. “Trigger Warning: This class includes limits. If contemplating infinity fills you with a suicidal recognition of your insignificance, contact your advisor.”

  12. “But Dean Ellison, safe spaces are already on probation!”

    “Very well, then as of now they’re on double secret probation!”

    1. ROBOT HOUSE!

      1. Hey, if Sn??ty H?use can’t win a race despite being allowed to cheat, perhaps they should get new servants.

  13. I don’t think Heer understands what academic freedom means.

    One thing it doesn’t – and has never – mean is that you can teach whatever you want in your class in whatever manner you choose.

    If my class is on remedial algebra I don’t get to fling shit around the class while reading excerpts from an Andrea Dworkin criticism at the top of my lungs. Even if you have tenure you’ll find yourself, out of a teaching position and in front of a tenure review board real fast if you did that.

    It really only means that the university – the people who hired you – will give you wide latitude in your methods as long as, and only for as long as, it doesn’t hurt the universities reputation or income.

  14. Somehow I don’t think Heer would be boldly defending, say, the case from Queen’s University of a professor using anti-vaccine material as ‘academic freedom’.

  15. Freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others

    Indeed.

    1. What’s the matter? Didn’t get enough attention with your other handle?

      1. That wasn’t a threat. Good – you people are learning.

        1. ‘You people’? Who are you, Mitt Romney?

  16. Something tells me Ellison’s announcement is only tangentially directed to incoming students. It has much more to do with the people who pay those students’ tuition (parents) and donors. The sort of people who are likely to take a serious and active interest in the school’s academic quality and reputation.

    *See the NYT article about the “unexpected” decline in alumni giving.

  17. Today’s Mechanical Engineering class will be looking at trigger mechanisms.

    Crisp and consistent are what you’re shooting for.

  18. Lifecycle of a College Panic
    1. A handful of student blitzed on off-brand booze and cheap weed decides to “Change The World With Their Manifesto”(tm) and take to Facebook and Twitter to Spread The Word ™

    2. Petitions are gathered. Most people who sign don’t read the thing and/or only signed as an excuse to chat up the hot chick with the clipboard and huge tits.

    3. Rallies are held. Most people attending are there to score some weed and see if the chick with the big tits is there.

    4. The College Does Something. Usually by forming a committee with no power, posting rules they can’t and won’t back up and in extreme cases, firing profs they were looking for a good excuse to get rid of anyway.

    5. This is never noticed by the original complainers as they long stopped giving a shit by step 3.

    1. You need to add in the “It becomes a culture war bone for the left and the right to fight over” step.

      1. That’s kind of implied since steps 2 and 3 can apply to either side.

        1. I meant the national media picking it up. I expressed myself poorly.

          1. You’re definitely right about that.

            1. About the media, of course 😉

              1. me rite real gud, missus Susan

    2. In Step 3, some/lots of people show up for the free dildos shit.

      This occasionally leads to SF’s point about the media picking it up.

  19. Jeet Heer is a mindless progressive drone. He’s useful just to monitor the current state of progressive “thinking”.

  20. What I want to know is, if someone like Milo Y. or David Horowitz books a speaking engagement there, will the school guarantee to the speaker’s fans that security will do their job and forcibly remove any heckler who would shout him down?

    That would be a very welcome thing and a real advance for free speech. But I looked for it in the dean’s letter and it isn’t there.

  21. Heer’s article reads like a parody. A university does not infringe on academic freedom (rightly understood) by limiting professors from doing certain things. They wouldn’t let a professor show Sportscenter every class – is that a limitation on academic freedom? No, because showing SC every class wouldn’t further academic freedom’s end, the liberally (or at least competently) educated student. In fact, it would probably undermine it, since SC is lowbrow. Even more so the case with trigger warnings. Trigger warnings cast suspicion on the so-labeled material, stoke the ego of students with a victim-mentality, and imply that being a quivering creampuff is an acceptable way to go through life. All of this undermines the freedom and courage of mind necessary to approach material in the correct way, with an eye towards being liberally educated.

  22. And what if Trigger warnings were banned ?

    It is a university. Academic freedom is SUPPOSED to mean the freedom of students and professors to say things that are controversial – even offensive.

    If you do not want to be were someone might say something that offends you – then do not go to college.

    There is no right not to be offended.

    As Brandeis noted the response to offensive speech is more speech.

    I get really tired that we seem to think there are always two equal views on every issue.

    Mr. Heer is not merely wrong, he is unconscienably wrong.
    That the left seems to think they have a right to trigger warnings, safe spaces, …
    is disturbing. Mr. Heer entirely inverts the concept of free speech.

    I do not even understand the concept of “trigger warnings”
    A college course should cover the material relevant to that course.
    A course in modern european history – is going to cover Hitler.
    A course in american history is going to cover slavery.

    It is important not merely to expose students to courser views, but to allow those views to be expressed by their own adherents in their own language.

  23. It’s funny how people can read something and come to exactly opposite and wrong conclusion. Mr. Heer could not escape the orbit of his own predispositions and prejudices.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.