The Volokh Conspiracy

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A warning against trigger warnings



The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to incoming students explaining why they do not restrict potentially offensive speech, or give "trigger warnings" when potentially sensitive issues are going to be covered in class. As Dean of Students John Ellison puts it, "[o]ur 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."

Chicago's policy is commendable. Not only do trigger warnings inhibit free discussion of difficult issues, social science research suggests that they cause more pain and anxiety than they alleviate.

One of the law school courses I teach at George Mason University is Constitutional Law II, which focuses on the Fourteenth Amendment and its history. The class necessarily addresses many painful and difficult issues. Instead of offering trigger warnings, on the first day of class I give the students what I like to call my "warning against trigger warnings." It goes something like this:

"I don't believe in trigger warnings. But if I did, I would have to include one for virtually every day of this course. We are going to cover subjects like slavery, segregation, sexism, suicide, the death penalty, and abortion. There is no way to teach this course without discussing these issues. And there is no good way to cover them without also considering a wide range of views about these subjects and their relationship to the Constitution."

Students seem to get the point, and I have never had any real trouble over these matters (even though surveys show that the majority of George Mason law student have views well to the left of mine). I even tend to get higher student evaluations in Constitutional Law II than in my other courses, which deal with less sensitive subjects. Much more importantly, we are able to have open discussions about these issues and the judiciary's treatment of them—which would be much harder to do if I had to offer constant trigger warnings.

UPDATE: For readers who may be interested, here is my more general warning against government warnings. This one is not a teaching tool. But it is, I think, a useful consideration to keep in mind in debates about the costs and benefits of mandated warnings.

UPDATE #2: David Schraub argues that my warning against trigger warnings in fact qualifies as a trigger warning itself because it "tells students, accurately, about some of the content they'll be reading, and notes that much of it deals with issues of deep injustice and controversy."

This critique only works if you adopt an absurdly broad definition of what counts as a trigger warning. By Schraub's definition, almost any constitutional law syllabus that lists the topics that will be covered might easily count as such, so long as students reading it will understand that the topics include "issues of deep injustice and controversy." As usually understood in the academic world, trigger warnings are specific, detailed statements indicating exactly what type of potentially traumatic material will be taught, and on what date. My statement doesn't do either of these. It doesn't fully enumerate all the different painful issues we are going to cover (e.g.—the version above does not mention homophobia and racial violence, even though these actually are part of the course), and it doesn't warn students about exactly when we are going to cover them. In addition, trigger warnings generally carry the implication—even if unstated—that the material in question is going to be handled in a hypersensitive manner, so as to avoid (or at least minimize) any possible discomfort. My warning, I think, conveys a very different message.

NOTE: The original version of Update #2 did not include a correct link to David Schraub's post. I apologize for the error, which has now been corrected.