How NYU Should Approach Free Speech and Trigger Warnings

Sarah John, Contributing Writer

People often reduce the campus free speech debate to a trade-off between open discourse and a culture of respect. But truly, we can have both and balance free speech and inclusivity through an apt usage of trigger warnings. 

Common arguments declare that trigger warnings limit free speech, consequently coddling students and encouraging them to be hypersensitive. Even just saying the phrase “trigger warning” can lead to eyerolls and mutters of the word “snowflake.” But trigger warnings are not a speech ban or a form of censorship. They can serve a reasonable purpose in creating an environment that is mindful of how course material can impact students of various backgrounds, especially at a university like NYU.  For many, coming to NYU was not a choice driven solely by academics — it was about seeking a haven of tolerance and empathy. 

Before starting school this year, I had previously heard that the campus is sensitive to what might evoke past trauma for students. However, I was surprised by the lack of awareness in a few of my classes. In one class during a discussion on slavery, we were shown a fairly graphic video of a whipping scene with no warning. The clip was a scene from “Roots,” and showed a man screaming while being repeatedly whipped for refusing to respond to his new slave name. Eventually, he was unable to take the pain. He agreed to respond by the slave name, symbolizing him giving up his African heritage. 

As an African American with parents from Nigeria, this scene was particularly heartbreaking. While I wasn’t offended per se, I was jarred, as were several other students. I understand that showing graphic content can have academic value, but it is also reasonable to expect that professors will understand that these scenes do affect students. A warning would simply acknowledge potential discomfort, and most importantly, it is a sign of respect. NYU emphasizes sensitivity. As I was applying, much of the admissions material highlights students of color who felt comfortable and included in the school community. So why is the focus on creating a comfortable atmosphere lost in the classroom setting, when a mere warning posits great benefits? 

While real life may not have trigger warnings, a classroom environment can and should be a place of above-average decorum. All ideas are welcome, but how we approach the discussion of these ideas matters. 

NYU should adopt a policy that asks professors to provide warnings as they screen or mention sensitive material in class. To prevent the policy from being too broad, the opinions of multiple faculty members and administration should be taken into account. The variety of thoughts on the topic will help to create a reasonable, balanced policy. This policy should outline trigger warnings only for material that most people would consider graphic. Thoughtful, nuanced discussion can produce guidelines that manage to create comfort while still encouraging uncensored, free and open discourse. It’s simple. Take Cornell professor Kate Manne. In her piece “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,”  she explains how her warnings function as “a quick heads-up,” which can be as straightforward as “The reading for this week contains a graphic depiction of sexual assault.” With warnings like these, there is no censorship or loss of information. 

Above all, NYU paints itself as a beacon of tolerance, one where mental health is prioritized. Its policies should follow suit. The efficient use of reasonable trigger warnings is a small step NYU can and should take to provide the sensitivity it promises to students.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 23 print edition.

Email Sarah John at [email protected]

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