Does a Trigger Warning Merely Indicate an Intent to do Harm? Hamline University Edition

 by Michael C. Dorf (***Updated with link to column)

My latest Verdict column discusses the saga of Erika Lopez Prater--the art history adjunct professor who lost her position at Hamline University as a result of the administration's craven capitulation to a Muslim student's complaint that Professor Lopez Prater's respectful display of a historically significant painting of the prophet Muhammad was Islamophobic. My column focuses on Hamline President Fayneese Miller's disingenuous claim that Lopez Prater wasn't "fired;" she was simply not renewed. As I explain in the column, this sort of claim (which administrators at other universities also make) only works because of the shabby treatment of the adjunct faculty who comprise a majority of instructors in American higher education.

Here I want to discuss one aspect of the merits of the complaint against Professor Lopez Prater. Part of what made the student's complaint unreasonable--and the university's reaction to it doubly unreasonable--is the fact that Lopez Prater warned students in advance, both in her syllabus and again in class, that a painting of Muhammad would be among the many works of art that would be displayed during the class. Any Muslim students who believed that viewing an image of the prophet was sinful could have averted their eyes or briefly left the classroom. In other words, Lopez Prater gave a trigger warning.

The offended student's allies did not consider that fact mitigating. The executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said that “a trigger warning is an indication that you are going to do harm.” Now, to be clear, this is not the position of the national CAIR, which disavowed the local chapter's position. But that disavowal does not seem to have changed the position of the university administration.

In any event, what should we make of the claim that "a trigger warning is an indication that you are going to do harm?" Let's consider.

If one really thinks that a trigger warning merely signals an intent to do harm, then one would never give trigger warnings. Any content that might occasion a trigger warning is, according to this logic, ipso facto harmful. And presumably the Minnesota CAIR official who condemned Lopez Prater did not mean that trigger warnings indicate harm but justified harm. His claim was that the trigger warning showed that the content about which the warning was issued should not be shown.

It's not crazy to suppose that trigger warnings are useless because one should either show the material or not. After all, some educators deliberately eschew trigger warnings. In 2016, the University of Chicago made news by telling its incoming students that they would not receive trigger warnings (or have "safe spaces"). But even as the University of Chicago was thereby signaling a robust commitment to free speech, it recognizes limits. Its statement of principles acknowledges:

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.

Accordingly, it is possible to take the position that there are things that cannot be said in a classroom (or elsewhere on campus) but that anything that is permissible to say can (and should) be said without a prior trigger warning.

Yet while that position is logical, it's not clear that it's sound. Based on their background, experience, and values, students will often vary in their sensitivity to course materials. The dimensions along which students may have special circumstances relate to sensitivity to: disturbingly violent images or videos; expressly sexual content; depictions or descriptions of sexual violence; use of racial epithets; statements or images that contradict or are offensive to particular religious traditions; and more. An instructor who issues a trigger warning makes a judgment that the pedagogical value for most students justifies the risk that some students will choose to skip the material or suffer offense, insult, or upset.

Here's a relatively straightforward example. Suppose an instructor in an undergraduate course in moral philosophy has a class session on animal rights. In order to ensure that students understand what's actually involved in animal agriculture, the instructor includes in the assigned materials graphic footage of a slaughterhouse. Some students might be vegans who are already fully aware of what happens to animals slaughtered for food. For some of them, viewing the video would simply be traumatizing. A trigger warning coupled with an opt-out allows them to avoid the trauma while still providing the pedagogical value for others in the class.

To be sure, there are circumstances in which a trigger warning plus opt-out creates difficulties. Suppose an instructor in a college American literature class decides that, all things considered, it is worth assigning Huckleberry Finn despite the book's use of the n-word and its portrayal of Jim, an enslaved man, as foolish and childlike. It would be perfectly reasonable to include a prominent warning on the syllabus and to direct classroom attention specifically to racism as portrayed and to some extent reflected in the novel. But here it's not clear that the trigger warning should include an opt-out. Students who don't read Huck Finn would need to be given some alternative, which creates additional work for the instructor and a rift within the class. So a decision to assign Huck Finn might need to be based on the assumption that some students will be offended but unable to opt out and that the offense will be race-based.

In other words, a trigger warning with opt-out works best for a relatively small amount of content--like the single painting depicting Muhammad that Professor Lopez Prater displayed. For longer works, where an opt-out is infeasible, a trigger warning is of limited use.

Still, that's not to say that there's no point in issuing a trigger warning even if there's no opt-out possibility. For some material (such as violent images), a warning may provide sensitive students an opportunity to brace themselves. Even if widespread opt-outs are not contemplated, a trigger warning along with a suggestion that concerned students contact the instructor (which is what Professor Lopez Prater) could lead to customized accommodations in particular cases. And a trigger warning need not simply warn but can also provide useful context and explanation that can, in turn, lead to substantive discussion of what makes particular texts or images especially problematic.

Bottom line: the local CAIR official's claim was grossly unfair with respect to Professor Lopez Prater but contains an element of truth; even so, there can be a useful if limited role for trigger warnings.