The Volokh Conspiracy
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Cornell University President's and Provost's Statement Rejecting Student Assembly Call for Trigger Warning Mandate
The call was for trigger warnings for "any traumatic content that may be discussed, including but not limited to: sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, xenophobia."
From a statement released Monday (see the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression post for more):
Thank you for conveying Student Assembly Resolution #31, "Mandating Content Warnings for Traumatic Content in the Classroom." We cannot accept this resolution, as the actions it recommends would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education.
Academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle in higher education, establishes the right of faculty members to determine what they teach in their classrooms and how they teach it, provided that they behave in a manner consistent with professional ethics and competence, and do not introduce controversial matters unrelated to the subject of their course. And freedom of inquiry establishes the right of students, researchers, and scholars to select a course of study and research without censure or undue interference.
Common courtesy would suggest that in some cases faculty may wish to provide notice, whether via the course syllabus or in the classroom, when they will be addressing topics that some may find challenging or painful. Similarly, it may also sometimes be appropriate for faculty to contextualize such topics, and explain why they are being introduced. But requiring that faculty anticipate and warn about all such situations—described in the resolution as content "including but not limited to: sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, xenophobia"—would unacceptably restrict the academic freedom of our community, interfering in significant ways with Cornell's mission and its core value of Free and Purposeful Inquiry and Expression.
Such a policy would violate our faculty's fundamental right to determine what and how to teach, preventing them from adding, throughout the semester, any content that any student might find upsetting. It would have a chilling effect on faculty, who would naturally fear censure lest they bring a discussion spontaneously into new and challenging territory, or fail to accurately anticipate students' reaction to a topic or idea. And it would unacceptably limit our students' ability to speak, question, and explore, lest a classroom conversation veer into an area determined "off-limits" unless warned against weeks or months earlier.
Moreover, we cannot require that "students who chose to opt-out of exposure to triggering content will not be penalized, contingent on their responsibility to make up any missed content." Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education: essential to our students' intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society. As such, permitting our students to opt out of all such encounters, across any course or topic, would have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student, and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree.
Here is the resolution that the President and Provost rejected:
Resolution 31: Mandating Content Warnings for Traumatic Content in the Classroom
Whereas, exposure to triggering classroom content can negatively affect students with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), resulting in emotional and physical symptoms that can lead to poorer academic performance and increased absenteeism;
Whereas, it is not a standard requirement for instructors at Cornell to provide content warnings for triggering classroom content;
Whereas, "triggering classroom content" can refer to a range of topics, including but not limited to: sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial violence, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, etc.;
Whereas, classrooms that do not provide advance warning for triggering content negatively affect students with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD);
Whereas, exposure to trauma-related information can trigger PTSD symptoms in individuals with a history of trauma, and in a classroom setting, can elicit strong emotional and physical reactions in students with PTSD;
Whereas, students with PTSD may experience a range of emotional and physical symptoms in response to trauma-related content, including anxiety, fear, irritability, flashbacks, and panic attacks;
Whereas, scholars at Cornell have discussed how providing advance content warnings can help prepare students to engage with traumatic material in a rational and calm manner, without censoring or restricting academic freedom;
Whereas, including content warnings gives respect and acknowledgment to the effect of triggering content on students with PTSD, both diagnosed and undiagnosed;
Whereas, doing so makes the discussion of sensitive academic topics more predictable, therefore balancing the academic freedom of instructors to teach with the needs of the student body;
Be it therefore resolved, the University preserve the Cornellian values of "any person, any study" and recognize the importance of supporting students with PTSD and other conditions;
Be it further resolved, Student Assembly implores all instructors to provide content warnings on the syllabus for any traumatic content that may be discussed, including but not limited to: sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, xenophobia;
Be it finally resolved, students who choose to opt-out of exposure to triggering content will not be penalized, contingent on their responsibility to make up any missed content.
I was glad to see the Cornell President's and Provost's statement, which I think is generally correct. As to the possibility that trigger warnings may actually be counterproductive (a separate, though related, question), see Payton J. Jones et al., Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories, 8 Clinical Psychol. Sci. 905 (2020); Benjamin W. Bellet et al., Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead, 61 J. Behav. Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry 134, 140 (2018).