A Look Into the Free Speech and Trigger Warnings Debate

Posted by Katie Brown on 15 September 2016 |

free speech trigger warnings debateThroughout a student’s coursework during college, he or she will likely come across sensitive material. Maybe it’s a debate over gender and sexuality in a science course, or a graphic reading of a sexual encounter in an English class or a discussion on religion in an ethics course.

It’s not uncommon for students, or even professors, to experience discomfort or unease when studying various topics throughout the year. Yet, these feelings may vary from person to person, often based on prior life experiences or exposures. One response on campuses to minimize these types of controversial topics is to implement trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Recently, this has become a hot topic on campuses across the nation:

  • Do trigger warnings and safe spaces help ensure that students, faculty or staff aren’t exposed to material or ideas they may find offensive or re-evoke an emotionally damaging experience, such as a family death or sexual violence?
  • Do trigger warnings limit or discount the ideals of free speech and expression by allowing people to remove themselves from confrontational or controversial topics?

Let’s take a deeper look into the meaning of these hot topics.

What are Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces?

For many people, particularly those who have dealt with a traumatic experience such as sexual violence, bullying or religious adversity, free speech could re-ignite these difficult emotions. While people are able to speak openly and freely about their ideas, feelings or beliefs, it doesn’t always mean that the audience agrees with the subject matter, or is even receptive to the message.

In a university environment, campuses have begun implementing trigger warnings and safe places for its students.

  • Trigger Warnings

Whether written in the syllabus or noted by the professor at the beginning of a class or lecture series, trigger warnings are used by professors to notify students of sensitive, graphic or controversial material and discussions.

  • Safe Spaces

According to an article by the NY Times, “a safe space is an area on campus where students — especially but not limited to those who have endured trauma or feel marginalized — can feel comfortable talking about their experiences … In essence, it’s a place for support and community.”

The Debate: Do Trigger Warnings Censor Free Speech?

Many campuses and professor see trigger warnings as a simple “heads up” or basic courtesy to students. However, critics see “[trigger] warnings as censorship, and perhaps an easy way for students to get out of attending class or doing assignments.”

Recently, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, John Ellison, wrote a letter to incoming freshman saying, "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."

Receiving both praise and criticism, the University of Chicago’s stance on trigger warnings and safe spaces was nothing short of controversial, and campuses across the nation are undergoing similar discussions.


The debate may continue on, so despite which side you take on the free speech vs. trigger warning debate, the most vital thing to focus on is campus safety and the well-being of students, professors and staff. 

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