Trigger Warnings and Intellectual Freedom

Academic Freedom, Censorship, Labeling and Rating, Self-Censorship

By: Pat Peters

Trigger warnings, initially designed to give advance notice of content potentially detrimental to those who have suffered trauma, have made their way into everyday situations and become code for “stuff that may be offensive or upsetting.” The controversy that continues to surround the use of trigger warnings in educational settings, whether K-12 or university, seems to boil down to whether one uses a narrow definition of the term or a broad definition.

PTSD BrainThe term “trigger warning” comes from the mental health profession as a way of helping people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) deal with potentially harmful situations, images or text. The Johns Hopkins Medicine Glossary of Mental Health Disorders defines PTSD as “a debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal” (Glossary). Trigger warnings, then, are those heads-up comments or notices given prior to entering a situation that might “trigger” such a flashback.

In her opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Angela Shaw-Thornburg speaks out for the first time about her own sexual assault at age 12 and how that affected her academic career more than a decade later in a graduate Victorian literature course:

I do fine in the class—more than fine, in fact—until we get to the weeks when we read a memoir detailing the sexual history of an upper-crust Victorian who exploits girls and women to satisfy himself.
I am curled up in my bed reading, so when I blank out … there is no danger of my falling … I do remember feeling as if some blunt force had struck the front part of my brain. In the weeks that follow, I am all animal. I eat infrequently and refuse to bathe because I cannot bear to touch my own body.
When I stuff my seminar paper under my professor’s door weeks after it is due, I attach a letter explaining that the narrator of the sexual history shares an uncanny resemblance to the person who raped me when I was 12, and that although I know the intellectual difference between fact and fiction, between my story and the strangely complementary story of this memoirist, I found myself so damaged by the reading that I lost my capacity to write for a while. I never hear back from her, but I do well in the class. It takes me months to right my ship. (p. B20)

Shaw-Thornburg’s experience of being unable to function for weeks at a time is exactly the kind of response that trigger warnings are meant to avoid, or at least soften. A student who suffers from PTSD but is given notice of potentially harmful content may be able to work with their therapist or other counselor to be able to fulfill the assignment without losing their ability to conduct daily life. At the least, a student who believes they would not be able to do so, might talk with their instructor about an alternative.

At most universities, the Office of Student Services (or its equivalent) will have personnel who work with students who have all manner of health issues (both physical and mental). These university staff members can give faculty advance notice that a student may need accommodation or one sort or another. In the case of a student with PTSD, this might require one-on-one meetings to address course content or the inclusion for all students of what one professor called “content forecasting” (Stringer 65) in a syllabus or class discussion.

For Rebecca Stringer, a lecturer in gender studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand, what she calls “content forecasting” is just a mark of good teaching. Her use of what others may call trigger warnings is “not about removing words, ideas, and subjects from the syllabus; instead they are about adding a system of warnings or forecasts about upcoming content” (Stringer, p. 63). For Jessica Burnquist (quoted in School Library Journal’s article “Triggered”), practicing what she called “’front-loading of contextual content’—prior to teaching literature that is ‘complex in nature’ … helps to set the stage for what students will read and discuss” (Jacobson, p. 34). For these instructors, placing an upcoming assignment or class experience into context makes sense from a pedagogical point of view.

On the other hand, including blatant trigger warnings for those not suffering from PTSD may be tantamount to censorship. In some cases, faculty members have made the decision not to include certain material rather than run the risk of upsetting or offending students. Students at several universities, including Oberlin College, Brown University and the University of California Santa Barbara, have called for trigger warnings across the curriculum. In response, a 2014 report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called trigger warnings “a threat to faculty academic freedom and judgement in the selection of course materials and instructional methods. Even voluntary trigger warnings used by individual faculty were seen as potentially counterproductive” (Morris, p. 374). The report warns of the herculean task of trying to predict every potentially upsetting idea in an assignment or lecture.

In addition, trigger warnings — like labeling library materials — can lead to oversimplification of ideas or content. A warning about a graphic rape scene or suicide might brand an assigned text as being about that single issue, when the reality is that the piece is about much broader, more complex subject matter but contains difficult material (Morris, p. 374).

Controversy surrounding the use of trigger warnings is much more abstract than the seemingly clear-cut rhetoric that has been thrown around in journals for the past several years. The complaint that the use of trigger warnings is all about political correctness denies their value for those who truly suffer from PTSD. The calls for trigger warnings for every potentially upsetting situation are entirely unrealistic.

What we know for sure is that good teaching is about knowing your audience, knowing your subject, and doing your best to reach understanding by connecting one with the other. We need to stop blaming others, stop playing with semantics, stop pretending this is about being oversensitive, stop denying that people really can be hurt by words or pictures. As Angela Shaw-Thornburg concludes,

Language is powerful, images even more so. A word or an image is as capable of triggering hurt or delivering violence as a fired gun. To blithely introduce powerful, rousing images of violence into your classroom, to tell your students that these words and images are worthy of thought and study, and then to deny that such stuff might at least bruise those students is the worst kind of hypocrisy for those whose stock in trade is the word. Our students deserve better. (p. B20)



Glossary—Mental Health Terms.” Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.

Hanlon, Aaron R. (Fall 2015). The Trigger Warning Myth. New Republic. 246(11), 52-55.

Jacobson, Linda. (February 2017). Trigger Warnings and Emotions Distress. School Library Journal. 63(2), 34-36.

Shaw-Thornburg, Angela. (6/20/2014). This is a Trigger Warning. Chronicle of Higher Education. 60(39), B20.

Stringer, Rebecca. (December 2016). Reflections from the Field. Women’s Studies Journal. 30(2), 62-66.


Patricia PetersPat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library in Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.

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