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Thursday, August 25, 2016

The University of Chicago letter regarding "free exchange of ideas"

You can see here (and all over the interwebs) a letter from the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago to that university's incoming first-year students.  I wonder, have any law schools sent similar letters (or, letters covering the same issues) to incoming first-year law students?  Should they?  If so, what should they say?

For my own part, I do talk to students in Criminal Law, at several points during the semester, about the fact that the cases and materials we'll be reading do sometimes involve very difficult facts and that the materials and the questions they raise could very well be, for a variety of reasons, painful to read.  I urge respectful conversation and argument, but also invite students to speak with me if they have any concerns about talking in class about particular materials or about attending class on a particular day.  This kind of thing doesn't strike me as a "trigger warning," but maybe I'm misunderstanding what is meant, in the Chicago letter or generally, by that term.

Posted by Rick Garnett on August 25, 2016 at 04:22 PM in Rick Garnett | Permalink


Hi Matt - In my experience (so far), my mentioning/acknowledging/reminding that the facts in some of the cases (in particular, in the book I use, several child-abuse and partner-abuse cases) are ugly and painful seems to be received not so much as an invitation to opt-out or leave (I cannot recall anyone asking to do either) as just a reminder that the practice and study of law don't take place simply in a sanitized zone of appellate-court opinions but instead connect with real-world pain, wrongs, and violence. I guess my goal is to be sure they feel like there's nothing strange, or unlawyer-ly, about finding some of the cases difficult to read and think about. I don't think I would let a student "opt out" of a subject, as in "I don't want to study, or be tested on, the law of homicide", but I have, on occasion, gone along with students' requests to not be "cold called" on a particular day. This all feels different, to me, than allowing the possibility of students' taking offense -- say, to the arguments in a particular opinion or dissent -- to determine what we teach.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Aug 26, 2016 10:15:36 AM

Would you penalize a student for leaving the class because the material you are discussing that day recalls some horrible event in their own lives? If not, aren't you effectively allowing students to opt out but not disclosing that option? If you would penalize them, why?

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Aug 26, 2016 9:34:25 AM

I get the sense that a trigger warning includes an opt-out. For example, from a history professor at CUNY (who criticized the Chicago letter):

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty.

I have prefaced assignments with, for example, "This is a sexual harassment case, so the material may be explicit." It's that extra step--the opt-out--that I have never provided and that I do not really see Rick providing.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 25, 2016 6:44:27 PM

Shouldn't someone studying criminal law understand that they will encounter unsavory and disturbing facts? Isn't the class title "Criminal Law" itself a trigger warning?

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Aug 25, 2016 6:25:14 PM

I can't say what the University of Chicago meant in using the phrase "trigger warnings," but your invitation to students, Rick, fits squarely into what *I* think of as a trigger warning -- and it strikes me as a desirable and respectful one.

Posted by: Jon Weinberg | Aug 25, 2016 6:03:04 PM

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