Cornell University Rejects Student Demands To Insert ‘Trigger Warnings’ Before Class Discussions

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UPDATE: This piece has been updated to reflect statements from Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Cornell Student Assembly president Valeria Valencia and Speech First.

  • The Cornell University Student Assembly unanimously voted in March to approve a resolution that would require instructors to inform students about “traumatic content” being discussed in class.
  • The university rejected this proposal because it violates academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, according to an email obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • “Faculty must also be free to provide trigger warnings if they so choose, but it must be a decision left up to the faculty member — not students or administrators,” Sabrina Conza, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) program officer, told the DCNF.

Cornell University rejected a student government proposal to insert trigger warnings in class syllabi to warn students about “traumatic content” that could be discussed, according to an email obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Cornell University Student Assembly unanimously voted to approve Resolution 31 during its March 23 meeting, which would “require instructors who present graphic traumatic content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to provide advance notice to students and refrain from penalizing students who opt out of exposure to such content,” its text reads. The university rejected the resolution because it violates Cornell’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, according to an email obtained by the DCNF. (RELATED: Colleges — And Students — Took An Axe To Free Speech In 2022. Here Are Some Of The Worst Examples)

“Academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle in higher education, establishes the right of faculty members to determine what they teach in their classrooms and how they teach it, provided that they behave in a manner consistent with professional ethics and competence, and do not introduce controversial matters unrelated to the subject of their course,” the email reads. “And freedom of inquiry establishes the right of students, researchers, and scholars to select a course of study and research without censure or undue interference.”

The trigger warnings would inform students that content in the course could include reference to “sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment [and] xenophobia,” according to the resolution. Students who opt out of participating in the discussion would not be penalized.

Professors can choose to inform students of content discussed in class or explain why a topic is being discussed but cannot be forced to preface it in the syllabus, the email reads. Requiring faculty to disclose any topic that could be upsetting for students would infringe on faculty members’ “fundamental right to determine what and how to teach” and prevent that from adding topics throughout the semester.

It would also “have a chilling effect on faculty, who would naturally fear censure lest they bring a discussion spontaneously into new and challenging territory, or fail to accurately anticipate students’ reaction to a topic or idea” and would stifle student’s ability to ask questions or have open discussions in the classroom, according to the email.

Allowing students to opt out of learning about subjects that they could find upsetting would “have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student, and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree,” the email reads.

“Although I embrace the shared governance system of Cornell University, I was disappointed to hear that President Pollack rejected Student Assembly Resolution 31: Mandating Content Warnings for Traumatic Content in the Classroom,” Valeria Valencia, Cornell Student Assembly president, told the DCNF. “I disagree with the idea that by implementing content warnings in the classroom, we would be infringing on the principle of academic freedom and freedom of speech. This resolution was created with the intention of supporting students, not anything else. In the future, I hope to see administration, faculty, and students working together to explore this idea and come up with an amicable solution.”

Free speech advocates were staunchly against the resolution and told the DCNF that implementing it could raise free speech concerns.

“FIRE commends Cornell for standing up for faculty academic freedom. The university’s decision not to implement a trigger warning requirement will protect faculty’s expressive rights and ensure students are prepared for the real world — where they will almost certainly face potentially triggering material without warning,” Sabrina Conza, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression program officer, told the DCNF. “We continue to urge Cornell to implement a free speech training program to educate students and promote a free speech-friendly campus environment.”

Trigger warnings “can be more harmful than positive for those who they’re meant to protect,” Conza said. “As you may expect, telling students that content may hurt them leads them to expect that they will be hurt, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Cherise Trump, Speech First executive director, told the DCNF that trigger warnings lead to “chilled speech, less engagement, and controlling which ideas get to be heard in class and which ones don’t.”

“We are glad to hear in this case, that Cornell has stood up for free speech,” Trump said.

William A. Jacobson, clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, and founder of Legal Insurrection, called the student resolution a “manipulative powerplay.”

“The Student General Assembly Resolution is a gross attempt at speech and academic content policing which infantilizes students, relies on faulty claims that academic content worsens PTSD, and violates the academic freedom of faculty,” he told the DCNF.

Cornell University referred to the email when asked for comment.

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