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Cornell’s classroom trigger warnings are a disaster for free speech

Cornell University’s student assembly has voted unanimously in favor of requiring trigger warnings for “traumatic” content in classes — a move that would undermine academic freedom on campus.

The recently introduced resolution “implores all instructors to provide content warnings on the syllabus that may be discussed,” meaning professors would be on the hook for anticipating what readings or other materials might “traumatize” their students.

This spells disaster for free speech.

According to the decision, topics or mentions that would require a trigger warning include “but [are] not limited to” sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment and xenophobia.

Recently-released meeting minutes show the student assembly voted to adopt the resolution last week.

I’m a fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), an advocacy group for campus free speech, and we wrote to Cornell earlier this week imploring the school not to adopt this policy for the sake of academic freedom.

“That Cornell’s student government passed this unanimously should prompt Cornell to take a hard look about how its current crop of students view getting a college education,” FIRE attorney Alex Morey told The Post.

Moment Editorial/Getty Images

And students are pushing back, too. Cornell senior and College Republicans president Avery Bower said he “firmly opposes” the resolution.

“It is troubling how little academic freedom is regarded by many of the students here at Cornell,” he told The Post.

“We go to college to be exposed to controversial subject matter, and trigger warnings have a chilling effect on professors and students pursuing Cornell’s stated mission of free inquiry,” Bower added.

Avery Bower headshot
Cornell senior Avery Bower said he went to college “to be exposed to controversial subject matter.”

Trigger warnings have been growing in popularity across campuses over the past decade and are intended to protect students from material that might traumatize them.

But free speech advocates have long warned that requiring professors to proactively anticipate what students might subjectively find “triggering” could lead them to self-censor or avoid certain material.

“There’s no question that [trigger warnings] make professors more trepidatious about what they cover,” FIRE president and CEO Greg Lukianoff told The Post. “That’s a disaster for academic freedom.”

“As a student of history, I cannot imagine what my courses would look like if they were not engaging with controversial material,” Bower noted.

Cornell campus

I saw many trigger warnings myself when I was a student at NYU from 2018 to 2021, and they always struck me as patronizing.

Is the implication that college students are too weak and feeble to hear the truth?

While trigger warning advocates probably believe they’re doing sensitive classmates a favor by protecting them from “triggering” content, a growing body of research calls that assumption into question.

In fact, three major studies in 2018 and 2019 found that the potential benefits of trigger warnings are “at best trivial.”

Professor teaching
Getty Images/iStockphoto

And Lukianoff says trigger warnings actually may harm the very students they’re meant to protect.

“Believing you can be hurt by words can become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he warned. “People are very resilient, but if you tell them they’re not, that can really undermine their resilience.”

Whether or not the university will ultimately adopt the Student Assembly’s resolution remains to be seen. In the meantime, FIRE is demanding a “substantive response” from the university that reaffirms its commitment to free speech.

Greg Lukianoff headshot
Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

“Our world needs students coming out of top institutions like Cornell ready to take on and solve our world’s biggest problems — ones that undoubtedly raise issues of inequality, violence, race, and other deeply upsetting things,” Morey said. “Precisely zero of those come with trigger warnings.”

“If Cornell wants to achieve its mission of educating students able to solve society’s most pressing problems, they need to get them used to that reality now.”

Our world will be better off if our future citizens and leaders aren’t taught that they’re too fragile to deal with reality.