UChicago faculty defend students' right to trigger warnings

'We encourage the Class of 2020 to speak up loudly and fearlessly'

More than 150 University of Chicago (UChicago) faculty members published an open letter to freshmen Tuesday taking aim at a previous message slamming safe spaces and trigger warnings, Scott Jaschik reports for Inside Higher Education

Last month, Dean of Students John Ellison penned a note that told students they would not be protected from arguments or ideas.

"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces,' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own," Ellison wrote.

In response, faculty published a letter in the student newspaper arguing that students have the right to request trigger warnings and safe spaces. The professors did not say that such concepts are inherently good or bad, but rather, are essential for students to comfortably express themselves.

"Those of us who have signed this letter have a variety of opinions about requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces," the letter states. "But let there be no mistake: such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance, and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges. To start a conversation by declaring that such requests are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy."

 The letter also points to how historically, safe spaces for marginalized groups "served as incubators of new ideas away from the censure of the very authorities threatened by these movements." Such havens are also necessary in the academic sphere, the professors write. 

About half of faculty members say they're open to trigger warnings

Professors did not directly call out Ellison in the letter, but they did note that "mutual respect is indeed indispensable" for discussions that take place at UChicago.

The letter concludes, "The right to speak up and to make demands is at the very heart of academic freedom and freedom of expression generally. We deplore any atmosphere of harassment and threat. For just that reason, we encourage the Class of 2020 to speak up loudly and fearlessly" (Jaschik, Inside Higher Education, 9/14). 

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