University Of Chicago Tells Freshmen It Does Not Support 'Trigger Warnings'

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on August 27, 2016 2:11 pm

The University of Chicago is welcoming new students to campus by warning them that they might hear things that might make them uncomfortable.

A letter sent by the school this week tells incoming freshmen that the university does not support "trigger warnings" as part of its commitment to freedom of expression.

"Dear Class of 2020 student," the welcome letter from the school's Dean of Students John Ellison begins. It goes on to explain the university's commitment to freedom of expression and inquiry. Students "are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship."

And that means the school "does not support so-called 'trigger warnings' " to alert students of upcoming discussions or speakers that they might find offensive.

The University of Chicago won't cancel controversial speakers, and it "does not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

Law professor Geoffrey Stone says the letter's intent was based on a report from a faculty committee he chaired on freedom of expression and academic freedom.

"This is really exciting," Stone says. "You're coming to an amazing institution."

He says the University of Chicago has a long history of standing for those principles.

"We've been deeply committed to the notion that we're here to learn from one another and to learn from the world and to study things and to figure out the answers. And the best way to do that is to hear all sides of everything."

Political science professor Charles Lipson shares his colleague's enthusiasm.

"I think it's an excellent thing," says Lipson, adding that too many campuses are shutting down discussions or speeches that some might find uncomfortable or offensive.

Across town, for example, DePaul University canceled an event last spring with conservative blogger Milo Yiannopoulos after his talk was disrupted by protests. Lipson notes several other schools have had similar controversies.

"I think universities have allowed students and faculty who want to suppress speech free rein," he says. "They've rolled over and they have not stood up for what ought to be a basic value of universities, which is to encourage free speech."

On campus, the challenge to hear and share different points of view is exactly what 16-year-old prospective student Ellie Carter from Ashland, Ore., is looking for.

"I can't understand why a college campus would be the kind of place where people would police uncomfortable topics or topics that should be," Carter says. "This is the place that they should be having that discussion at."

Carter's mom, Kathy, agrees.

"I want her exposed to more things, not to less things," Kathy says.

But the Carters also say trigger warnings can be important on some topics for some students. And that's a concern of graduate student Kelsey Stilton as well.

"It's a little in-your-face for the very first day of school," Stilton says.

She wishes the administration chose better terminology to reflect its commitment to free speech.

"The word 'trigger warning' and the word 'safe space' also implies something for people that have been in abusive or traumatic situations," she adds.

University of Chicago officials say professors still can provide trigger warnings and safe spaces if they choose, and they promise a lot more discussion when students arrive on campus and classes begin at the end of next month.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The University of Chicago is welcoming new students to campus by warning they might hear things that might make them uncomfortable. A letter sent by the school this week tells incoming freshmen the university does not support so-called trigger warnings as part of its commitment to freedom of expression. NPR's David Schaper reports some students are taken aback by the approach while others say that's exactly what they want at the university.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Dear class of 2020 student, the welcome letter from the University of Chicago's dean of students to incoming freshmen begins. It goes on to explain the university's commitment to freedom of expression and inquiry. Students are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship. And that means the school, quote, "does not support so-called trigger warnings" to alert students to upcoming discussions or speakers that they might find offensive.

The University of Chicago won't cancel controversial speakers, and it, quote, "does not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

GEOFFREY STONE: This is really exciting. You're coming to an amazing institution.

SCHAPER: That's law professor Geoffrey Stone explaining the intent of the letter to incoming freshmen which was based on a report from a faculty committee he chaired on freedom of expression and academic freedom. He says the University of Chicago has a long history of standing for those principles.

STONE: And we've been deeply committed to the notion that we're here to learn from one another and to learn from the world and to study things and to figure out the answers. And the best way to do that is to hear all sides of everything.

CHARLES LIPSON: I think it's an excellent thing.

SCHAPER: Political science professor Charles Lipson says too many campuses are shutting down discussions or speeches that some might find uncomfortable or offensive. Across town, for example, DePaul University canceled an appearance last spring by conservative blogger Milo Yiannopoulos because of protests. And Lipson notes several other schools have had similar controversies.

LIPSON: I think universities have allowed students and faculty who want to suppress speech free rein. They've rolled over and they have not stood up for what ought to be a basic value of universities, which is to encourage free speech.

SCHAPER: On campus, the challenge to hear and share different points of view is exactly what 16-year-old prospective student Ellie Carter of Ashland, Ore., is looking for.

ELLIE CARTER: I can't understand why a college campus would be the kind of place where people would police uncomfortable topics or topics that should be - like, this is the place that they should be having that discussion at.

SCHAPER: Ellie's mom, Kathy Carter, agrees.

KATHY CARTER: I want her exposed to more things, not to less things.

SCHAPER: But the Carters also say trigger warnings can be important on some topics for some students. And that's a concern of graduate student Kelsey Stilton as well.

KELSEY STILTON: It's a little in-your-face for the very first day of school.

SCHAPER: Stilton wishes the administration chose better terminology to reflect its commitment to free speech.

STILTON: Because the word trigger warning and the word safe space also implies something for people that have been in abusive or traumatic situations.

SCHAPER: University of Chicago officials say professors still can provide trigger warnings and safe spaces if they choose, and they promise a lot more discussion when students arrive on campus and classes begin at the end of next month. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.