Tiffany Salley

Faces of Roane State

Written Arts

5 March 2017

Warning! Content May be Inappropriate

            The First Amendment was introduced to the First Congress by James Madison in September 1789 as one of the initial Ten Amendments to the United States Constitution collectively known as the Bill of Rights.  The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  The Bill of Rights, along with the First Amendment, was ratified in 1791 establishing the most basic American freedoms (“An Overview”).  The First Amendment prevents the government from dictating religion, protects American’s right to freedom of speech, and allows for peaceful assembly and protest (“First Amendment”). 

In the First Amendment our Founding Fathers clearly state Americans should have the right to religious freedom and the right to freedom of expression.  The right to freedom of expression consists of the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and to address the government for grievances.  The most fundamental of the freedoms of expression is the freedom of speech without interference by the government.  Only in limited cases has the Supreme Court recognized that the government may need to prohibit speech.  This would include instances in which there is a high likelihood speech may cause a disturbance in peace or provoke violence, advocate illegal action, or contain obscenities (“First Amendment”).  Over time the right to free speech has been generalized to include all modern means and forums for communicating a message.  Likewise, the freedom from interference has been expanded beyond the government to include fellow Americans acting as either an organization or an individual.  The First Amendment was written without fear of offending religious, social, or political groups as our Founding Fathers envisioned Americans being independent in self, yet united in community.  As they penned the documents that would guide Americans for the next two hundred years, there could be no anticipation of the social changes and world events that would challenge the application of the rights conferred upon the citizens of this country.

An example of a challenge to the freedom of speech is the use of “trigger warnings” defined as “a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting” (“Trigger Warning”).  Trigger warnings evolved as a result of the concept of “triggers” or, “something that transports a person back to a traumatic event” (University of Alberta).  Literature describing triggers first appeared in the early 1900’s as psychologists worked to understand the sudden psychological and emotional breakdown of soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Iribarren et al.).  Psychologists have since learned triggers are activated by one or more of the five senses and may exhibit with an emotional intensity similar to that of the original trauma.  The sight or sound of a person or object is the most common trigger.  Those affected often learn, through unpleasant experiences, to avoid personal triggers (University of Alberta).  Around 1991 the inception of the internet gave American homes unparalleled access to potentially disturbing stories and pictures.  As the number of online users exploded, writers were prompted to preface blogs and posts with newly conceived “trigger warnings.”  Gradually content, such as rape, abuse, self-injurious behavior, and suicide began to appear with headers pronouncing “Warning – Content May be Inappropriate!”  The intent was to shield survivors of traumatic events from content that might upset or trigger them.

Today trigger warnings are commonplace.  Their use has moved far beyond traumatized individuals to a plethora of topics including, but not limited to: descriptions of medical and dental procedures, vomit, childbirth, blood, sex, swearing, clowns, spiders, and snakes.  This attempt to prevent chance exposure to common phobias, unpleasant sights, and obscenities may seem over-protective.  However, this use of trigger words is not nearly as detrimental as its use to protect individuals from facing complex social topics such as racism, classism, sexism, and other instances of oppression and discrimination.  Even in academic communities there is a movement to eliminate triggers to social topics.  Inspired by a belief that they are protecting students, faculty highlight difficult topics presumably allowing students to adapt themselves to face the topic.  For most students this is an opportunity to psychologically prepare by employing coping mechanisms such as deep breathing, visualization, self-soothing, social support, and counseling.  Trigger warnings in the classroom are not intended to be “an opt-out” of class, nor are they intended to hamper every person’s right to free speech.  However, there are always misuses of good intentions.

            “Please be seated,” the Modern Religious Studies professor directed his classroom of freshmen students.  “We will begin by reviewing the class syllabus and classroom guidelines.”

            “I hope he doesn’t spend the whole hour reading rules to us!” Dee whispered to her friend Brandy.  They were excited and a bit nervous to be taking their first religious studies class.  Both girls came from strict Christian homes, limiting their exposure to other schools of religious thought.  Personally, Dee hoped to gain a broader perspective on topics she had struggled with for years based on the teachings of her own church.

            “Shhhhh . . . at least listen to the rules,” Brandy scolded knowing Dee was not good at being quiet or following rules.

            Dee slipped in and out of early morning consciousness listening to the professor’s drudgery until Brandy jabbed her with the blunt end of a pencil.

            “My policy is to offer trigger warnings allowing students to modify their learning experience in a way to prevent unnecessary anxiety.  So, depending on the topic and the student’s needs, modifications may include an excused absence from class.”

            Dee’s hand shot into the air.

            “Yes?” The professor looked in Dee’s direction.

            “Do you mean I can miss an entire class if I don’t want to discuss a topic on the syllabus?”  Dee sounded appalled.   

            “Yes you may . . . I’ve had this policy for several years because I think it’s important for my students not to be placed in uncomfortable positions.”

            “But I signed up for this class so I could be uncomfortable!  The whole point was to be able to debate religious topics with people who don’t think the same way I do!”  Dee could feel Brandy’s hand on her arm telling her to let it go.  Dee was one of those girls with a big voice that only got bigger when she got excited.

            “I’m sure we can engage in healthy discussion despite my trigger warning policy.”

            “I can’t image a religious topic that would be too disturbing for a student to read or hear.  Has that really ever happened?”  Dee replied.

            “Not often, but it has once or twice.  We shall see how this group holds up to the challenge of addressing difficult social issues,” the professor stood his ground.        

            With Brandy’s encouragement, the remainder of the first class and the next three continued without further mention of trigger warnings.  It was not until the fifth class when the controversial topic of homosexuality and religion appeared on the syllabus that the issue resurfaced.

            “Good morning,” the professor greeted the class.  He moved to his usual position wedged between stacks of papers atop the front edge of the desk, coffee cup in hand.  “Who would like to open our discussion on homosexuality and religion?”

            As soon as the professor’s words were spoken, no less than twelve of the twenty five class members raised their hands.

            Dee could barely contain her excitement.  As an openly gay female raised in a loving but unaccepting environment this was a topic she’d waited patiently to discuss.  She was excited to hear what her classmates seemed eager to share.

            The professor pointed to a young lady in the front row.

            “May I be excused?”

            Looking surprised the professor paused, seemingly contemplating what was about to happen, then nodded affirmatively and pointed to the next student.  This process continued until all twelve were excused from the ensuing discussion.  As Dee watched each stand to walk away her face flushed with anger and resentment.

When the door swung shut one final time the class sat in silence.  Even the professor was at a loss for words as he walked to the coffee pot, topped off his cup, then moved to the chair behind his desk.

“So, this group didn’t hold up very well at all,” Dee said sarcastically.

“That was not typical,” the professor answered.

“I find it to be quite typical of the way people act if they are allowed to!  And, I would bet my life that not one of those people was ever traumatized by a homosexual!  They just don’t like people like me and what they did today was a way to discredit the person I am!”  Dee was on her feet.

“What happened here was nothing personal,” the professor insisted.

“You may not see it that way, but I do when someone leaves the room to avoid discussion with me.”

“Sexual orientation is a very personal matter that some people are not comfortable discussing in public,” the professor tried once more to defend his trigger warning policy.

“That may be true, but I don’t believe there just happened to be twelve, college age students, who are that sexually repressed, in the same class this morning.  I also don’t believe they left to protect themselves.  What just happened was discrimination.  It was a premeditated group walkout designed to humiliate me and maybe a couple other people in this room who are not out in the open yet.”

“This is the first time . . .”

“It might be the first time you’ve had a staged walkout, but it won’t be the last!” Dee interrupted the professor.  “If you excuse students from difficult social topics they will never learn tolerance for race, religious, politics, and sexual orientation!  You are giving student’s permission to discriminate by not requiring them to respect the rights of others, including the Freedom of Speech!”

Dee’s hands shook as she gathered her belonging and walked to the front of the class.  Standing face to face with the professor, Dee tore the syllabus in half and let it drop to in the floor.  She and Brandi left the room and never returned to the Modern Religious Studies class. Instead, both opted to accept an incomplete on their transcript.       

For academic leaders a critical decision must be made.  Do trigger warnings coddle over-sensitive and narrow-minded students, thereby allowing discrimination against minority groups? Or are they a valuable means of support for those who have experienced trauma or feel marginalized? 

Opponents would argue what happened in the above narrative represents how the use of trigger warnings has expanded far beyond its original intent.  They believe students are being given a free pass to avoid topics that go against their perception of the world.  This type of behavior is destroying the basic rights of The First Amendment, including The Freedom of Speech.  Here collusion by the religious studies students to be excused from the topic of homosexuality in the presence of an openly gay individual, was not an attempt to avoid discomfort on their part.  Instead, it was an act of active discrimination intended to create discomfort and shame on the part of a fellow student.  Through their actions Dee’s classmates were implying her lifestyle was inferior and she did not deserve to be heard, devaluing her as a student and a person.

In August 2016, the University of Chicago issued a letter to its incoming freshman stating their campus welcomed individuals of all backgrounds.  The letter went on to state trigger warnings would not be used because their academic leaders encouraged debate, disagreement, and discomfort in the promotion of the academic freedom.  There would be an expectation of tolerance for diversity and openness to the freedom of expression (Schaper).  Such a commitment to diversity means that each person’s inherent worth is recognized.  It means no one is excluded or devalued based on who they are as an individual, including skin color, gender, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation.  It means every person is respected equally and each has a chance to be heard just as our forefathers demanded when they wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.  The University of Chicago’s formal opposition to the use of trigger warnings has sparked renewed debate on the topic.

Proponents of trigger warnings assert there is a valid case for their use to alert students of potential traumatic triggers.  They propose a simple statement, such as, the material in this class may contain graphic sexual violence or this course contains disturbing material is all that is necessary to provide some comfort to those who suffer from personal triggers.  Warnings may be given verbally or in writing and generally elicit only a request for a brief relief from class time.  Often faculty who use trigger warnings have developed empathy through witnessing a student break down due to personal experience with the subject.  Proponents believe students request their use in limited, highly sensitive cases and make reasonable requests for accommodations (Smith).   

Two recent surveys shed some light on the state of trigger warning use at colleges and universities.  According to a 2015 survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), reported by Duignan, only 1% of colleges and universities require trigger warnings.  However, students at 15% percent of institutions requested their use and 12% complained about their absence.  The NCAC report noted, 45% of faculty believe trigger warnings have a negative effect on classroom dynamics and 62% think they have a negative effect on academic freedom.  Another nationwide survey, by Kamenetz, concluded half of over eight hundred collegiate faculty respondents use trigger warnings to introduce difficult material.  This survey noted those who used warnings do so at their own discretion, as less than 2% of academic institutions represented have administrative policies regarding the matter.  These studies demonstrate members of academia continue to be divided on the issue.  While academic policy is largely silent on the issue of trigger warnings classroom faculty often implement their use based on feedback from students.  Ultimately, academic leaders and individual faculty members have the responsibility of deciding which social topics need to be debated in order for young Americans to grow up understanding and respecting diversity and The First Amendment Right to Free Speech.





Works Cited

“An Overview of the 1st Amendment.”, 2017. Accessed 15 February 2017.

Duignan, Brian. “Trigger Warnings on Campus.”, 21 November 2016. Accessed 4 March 2017.

“First Amendment.” Cornell University law School. Legal Information Institute., n.d. Accessed 3 March 2017.

Iribarren, Javier, et al. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Evidence-Based Research for the Third Millennium.”, n.d. Accessed 3 March 2017.

Kamenetz, Anya. “Half of Professors in NPR Ed Survey Have Used 'Trigger Warnings' 2016.”, 7 September 2016. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Schaper, David. “University Of Chicago Tells Freshmen It Does Not Support Trigger Warnings.”, 26 August 2016. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Smith, Iman.  “Content Notice: Here Are A Few Ways Professors Use Trigger Warnings.”, 21 September 2016. Accessed 4 March 2017.

“Trigger Warning.”, 2017. Accessed 15 February 2017.

University of Alberta. Sexual Assault Centre. “What is a Trigger?”, 17 May 2016. Accessed 3 March 2017.