​LOPEZ: Implement trigger warnings on Grounds

Trigger warnings can help create a healthier academic environment

In 2010, the University of Virginia earned a “green light” rating by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education after eliminating four speech codes it previously had in place. This came after the constitutionality of these speech codes were brought up by members of the University’s community. Four years later, a Rolling Stone article attempted to expose alarming flaws in the way the University handles its sexual assault cases.

Two major events differing in both time and relation have come together to set the stage for the need of the implementation of a crucial mechanism within University classrooms: trigger warnings, or a clearly written advisory attached to a class syllabus or class materials which is designed to give negatively affected students a chance to opt out.

Institutional and organizational reforms within the University — such as a recent resolution between the U.S. Education Department and the University and the initiative “Hoos Got Your Back” — have highlighted the University’s commitment to provide a safe and healthy environment for sexual assault victims. However, such efforts have not been sufficiently extended to the classroom.

I am not undermining the University’s efforts to reform its sexual assault policies — it has actually been ardent and consistent this past year. In fact, the resolution between the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights and the University “[ensures] that the university’s handling of sexual violence and sexual harassment complies with the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX),” according to a department press release. This is a commendable contribution toward reforming the policies regarding how the University handles rape cases.

However, within this agreement, the University has not addressed a crucial factor for sexual assault victims: their post-attack emotional and psychological conditions within the learning environment. The University’s Policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence states “the University is committed to providing a safe and non-discriminatory learning, living, and working environment for all members of the University community.” Why, then, is the University not promoting the safe learning environment within classrooms?

A lack of public support might be a good explanation. Very few entities publicly recognize the value of trigger warnings. They have been widely criticized in many discussions and debates about free speech as a mechanism that “coddles” and “infantilizes” students by hiding them from opinions and discussions they might find unpleasant. Not only do they affect individuals’ learning experiences, opponents argue, but they also undermine the educational integrity of colleges and universities.

This argument — which can be easily made by those who have not experienced the sort of emotional or physical trauma sexual assault victims might face — presents trigger warnings as a mechanism that weaken sexual assault victims’ learning experience, instead of helping them prepare for upcoming discussions that might contain sensitive material. However, I have never witnessed a sexual assault victim who still suffers from the experience argue that trigger warnings limit intellectual growth.

Additionally, this is a constitutionally dicey concept. Speech codes have been challenged by federal and state courts on several occasions. They were also addressed by the Supreme Court’s decision on R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, which had deep implications for speech codes. Some say this mechanism restricts free speech inside classrooms. The problem with this argument is straightforward: trigger warnings don’t restrict the material that is going to be discussed. They simply provide students with a warning of what they are about to learn.

The same way the University cannot cover the ears of students regarding sensitive discussions, it shouldn’t force its students to be exposed to material to which they don’t wish to be exposed. Whether someone is to be “coddled” and “infantilized” in his education should be the decision of the person receiving the education, not the one providing it. Free speech is a right; whether a student has to hear sensitive material should be a choice.

The University, by implementing a basic yet effective policy that requires professors to have trigger warnings on course descriptions and syllabi, can allow sexual assault victims and other students to choose whether they want to partake in certain sensitive discussions and materials, and thus provide “a safe and non-discriminatory learning, living, and working environment for all members of the University community.”

As recent Brown graduate Katie Byron argued in The New York Times, the request for speech codes and trigger warnings within classroom are not about hiding students from different opinions and views, but about finding the right method by which to engage without affecting them. The University should put in place different mechanisms that promote a healthy environment to sexual assault victims who may suffer emotionally or psychologically within classrooms. Disregarding the well-being of these students would be unreasonable.

Carlos Lopez is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at c.lopez@cavalierdaily.com.

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