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Trigger warnings, safe places highlight panel discussion

The panel included Thomas Miller, associate professor in college student affairs (left); Gerard Solis, USF general counsel (right); and Steven Tauber, chair of the School of interdisciplinary Global Studies (middle). ORACLE PHOTO/JACOB HOAG

Trigger warnings and safe places, as well as their effects on freedom of speech, were among the issues discussed at a panel discussion held by USF on Tuesday.

The panel included Thomas Miller, associate professor in college student affairs; Gerard Solis, USF general counsel; and Steven Tauber, chair of the School of Interdiciplinary Global Studies who spoke to a small group primarily made up of USF faculty.

The discussion centered on free speech and the things that may hinder it. Under that umbrella is the controversial idea of both trigger warnings and safe places.

A trigger warning is a statement from a professor expressing that the ideas or content of something presented in a class may potentially cause discomfort to a student. Miller said this sort of “insulation” could be harmful to students as they prepare for the real world.

“Students, when they get to the university, are no longer children and don’t need to be protected or insulated from things that challenge them or even hurt their feelings,” he said.

“And I think that’s largely the case at institutions across this country.”

The University of Chicago, as both Miller and Tauber alluded to, set the precedent after the president of the school sent out a letter saying trigger warnings would be banned from its classrooms.

Tauber raised the question of whether or not all out bans or strict mandates would in fact restrict professors' academic freedom.

“The question here becomes that if the university mandates trigger warnings, then they might be trampling on a faculty member’s academic freedom of speech,” Tauber said.

This may also be the case with safe places, which Tauber defines as “a physical, geographic part of the university … that’s devoted for students that are part of a marginalized group — racial or ethic minorities, women, LGBTQ students — can go and feel safe and share their experience with other members of the marginalized group without fear of someone interfering.”

But this seemingly harmless gesture by universities, Tauber said, can also limit the freedoms that they try to establish.

“The question here is, what if a person — sticking with the LGBTQ example — is a fundamentalist Christian, Orthodox Jew or Fundamentalist Muslim and they want to go to where these students are,” Tauber said. “Again (this is a) public university and people can’t be excluded from certain areas unless it interferes with the academic educational mission.

“What if a fundamentalist who generally and honestly believes that homosexuality is a sin and wants to go to this safe space and while students are talking, that student may express his opinions. Is that person’s freedom of speech being violated because they aren’t allowed to say that in this designated space?”

Safe places were also a part of the University of Chicago’s letter and, while Miller, Solis and Tauber didn’t say they were for or against either of these issues, they insisted that USF would remain open to free expression and would not institute a policy banning either.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to have a policy that forces faculty to give trigger warnings and I don’t think we’ll ever have a policy that prevents them,” Miller said reiterating the same about safe places.