Academic Ethics: The Legal Tangle of ‘Trigger Warnings’

Do teachers have an obligation to warn students about course material that might upset them?

Jonathan Twingley for The Chronicle Review

November 13, 2016

"T rigger warnings" have become the latest football in the political playing field of higher education. My own university attracted national attention earlier this fall when an administrator informed all entering undergraduates that the university does "not support so-called ‘trigger warnings.’"

Of course, as many pointed out, academic freedom protects the right to use trigger warnings if professors deem them pedagogically useful. A letter that was meant to affirm freedom in learning and pedagogy, ironically, seemed to deny one part of it.

Much of the dispute about trigger warnings, unfortunately, appears to turn on rather different interpretations of what they are. An earlier article in The Chronicle described trigger warnings as "written or spoken warnings given by professors to alert students that course material might be traumatic for people with particular life experiences." And when so understood, the case for them can be straightforward.

Consider the easiest case: Sometimes teachers have a legal obligation to give trigger warnings, and ethically it is the right thing to honor that obligation. Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, are often at risk of debilitating psychological stress if exposed to stimuli — images, words, sounds — that evoke the original trauma. Survivors of sexual assault and military combat may need to be warned when assigned materials include descriptions of triggering events, such as rape or combat.

But even those who suffer from some severe phobias — I recall a colleague years ago whose fear of snakes was so severe that even a photo of a snake caused a panic attack — may be at risk and entitled to accommodation.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires accommodations for those suffering from such psychological disorders, and every U.S. institution should now have procedures for evaluating requests for accommodation. The moral aim of the ADA is an admirable one — to ensure professional, educational, and other opportunities to the greatest extent possible for those who live under the burden of a physical or mental disability. If a student requires trigger warnings, then the ADA entitles that student to receive them, and it is right to do so.

I have never seen a serious argument against trigger warnings in such cases. Oddly, though, proponents of trigger warnings often argue as if such easy cases count in favor of trigger warnings more broadly. If those with disabilities are to be served, however, decisions must be made by institutional officers charged with reviewing cases, not on an ad hoc basis by faculty.

In short, the easy cases are almost entirely irrelevant to the harder ethical questions raised by trigger warnings.

The more serious worries arise because trigger warnings are often interpreted much more capaciously. As my colleague Geoffrey Stone wrote in these pages back in August: "A trigger warning is a requirement that before professors assign readings or hold classes that might make some students feel uncomfortable, they must warn students that the readings or the class will deal with sensitive topics like rape, affirmative action, abortion, murder, slavery, the Holocaust, religion, homosexuality, or immigration." That characterization is not fanciful, and those kinds of trigger warnings, alas, have been at issue at many colleges and universities throughout the country.

Recall, for example, the Columbia University undergraduates who thought that Greek mythology and Roman poetry needed "trigger warnings," singling out Ovid’s depictions of rape, and adding: "Like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background."

But feeling that your identity is "marginalized" in a classroom is far removed from suffering from PTSD. Sensitive teachers try to include all of their students in a constructive learning environment, but a prohibition on "narratives of exclusion and oppression" would put off limits most of world history.

A report on trigger warnings by the American Association of University Professors identified similar cases, calling them "anti-intellectual and infantilizing," which many of them do seem to be. The AAUP pointed to a policy at Oberlin College (subsequently tabled) that listed the following as topics warranting trigger warnings: "racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression." The draft Oberlin report even cited Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart since it could "trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more."

There is plainly no legal or moral obligation to issue trigger warnings for these kinds of reasons, and there are strong moral reasons not to: The whole point of trigger warnings — as the real PTSD cases show — is to enable students to avoid engagement with materials. But how can that be compatible with the ethical imperative of educating young people? Students should, of course, engage with all facets of human experience in a serious education — including all the ghastly aspects of human experience — except to the extent that a documented medical condition makes that impossible.

This is not to say there is never a case for using an ad hoc trigger warning in your classroom. Graphic images — say, a decapitation — are upsetting, and images, unlike words, usually cannot be taken only in small chunks. Someone reading a description of a beheading can stop reading when it becomes clear what is coming, but someone watching a video of one may be taken by surprise.

But as with the easy cases — those with legal entitlements to accommodation due to psychological disorders — decapitations are not a good paradigm for thinking about trigger warnings, either.

Teachers should issue trigger warnings in the easy cases, but in all other cases, they ought to refrain from trying to shield students from serious study of the human experience, even when morally offensive. At the same time, teachers should discharge their fundamental duty — namely, helping students learn.

Sometimes discharging both tasks will require skill and sensitivity, but it is the ethical obligation of a serious teacher to develop both capacities.

Brian Leiter is a professor of jurisprudence and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago.