Mandated Trigger Warnings Threaten Academic Freedom

By Edward J. Graham

The AAUP’s Committee A in September released a report on “trigger warnings,” the practice of giving students advance warning that instructional or academic materials might elicit difficult emotional responses. Institutional mandates that faculty use trigger warnings interfere with academic freedom in the choice of course materials and teaching methods, the report says. While faculty may sometimes judge it necessary to alert students to potentially difficult material, there are reasons to be concerned that even voluntary use of trigger warnings may be counterproductive to the educational experience.

The report cites a policy at Oberlin College—now on hold to allow for continued debate—which cautions faculty to be mindful of potential trigger topics that include issues of “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” the report says. ”It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and—as the Oberlin list demonstrates—it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.”

“Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens. Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education. They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.”

The full report can be found on the AAUP website at