Exactly one year ago, American University emailed its student body with a reminder of the vote its Faculty Senate took a few months earlier in opposition to mandatory trigger warnings that I was the first to cover here. Yesterday, the school continued its stated opposition to both mandatory trigger warnings and censorship with another email sent to students earlier this morning from the Faculty Senate Chair, Andrea Pearson.

The email states that while “faculty may advise students before exposing them to controversial readings and other materials that are part of their curricula,” the school “does not endorse offering ‘trigger warnings’ or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to ‘opt out’ of engaging with texts or concepts, or otherwise not participating in intellectual inquiries.”

There is no stated reason for this email, but the school had several problems with free expression in the past few years. Its Student Government passed a bill in 2015 in direct response to the Faculty Senate’s unanimous vote to oppose mandatory trigger warnings that “call[ed] for the university to include trigger warnings on class syllabi and in curricula.”

This past year, a fraternity canceled a veterans fundraiser because administrators feared that its Bad(Minton) and Bougie theme “appropriat[ed] culture.”

While American University is a private institution and not bound by the First Amendment in the same way public schools are, the email seems to oppose potential hate speech laws. It states that “as laws and individual sensitivities may seek to restrict, label, warn, or exclude specific content, the academy must stand firm as a place that is open to diverse ideas and free expression,” adding that “these are standards and principles that American University will not compromise.”

It additionally states that “freedom of speech — protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution — undergirds the cherished principle of academic freedom. As limits, either subtle or explicit, are increasingly placed on intellectual freedom in venues of public discourse, the academy is committed to the full expression of ideas.”

Pearson concludes by stating that the “Faculty Senate affirms that shielding students from controversial material will deter them from becoming critical thinkers and responsible citizens. Helping them learn to process and evaluate such material fulfills one of the most important responsibilities of higher education.”

Welcome news from American University!

The full text of the email:

Dear Members of the American University Community,

With a warm welcome to the new academic year, the Faculty Senate wishes to remind colleagues across campus of its Resolution on Academic Freedom, approved two years ago and endorsed by the administration. We believe this statement is relevant to help establish the kind of environment we think is critical for the joint pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment that we are all embarking on together:

For hundreds of years, the pursuit of knowledge has been at the center of university life. Unfettered discourse, no matter how controversial, inconvenient, or uncomfortable, is a condition necessary to that pursuit. American University stands in this tradition, as stated in section 4 of the Faculty Manual.

(http://www.american.edu/provost/academicaffairs/faculty-manual-toc.cfm)

Freedom of speech — protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution — undergirds the cherished principle of academic freedom. As limits, either subtle or explicit, are increasingly placed on intellectual freedom in venues of public discourse, the academy is committed to the full expression of ideas.

American University is committed to protecting and championing the right to freely communicate ideas — without censorship — and to study material as it is written, produced, or stated, even material that some members of our community may find disturbing or that provokes uncomfortable feelings. This freedom is an integral part of the learning experience and an obligation from which we cannot shrink.

As laws and individual sensitivities may seek to restrict, label, warn, or exclude specific content, the academy must stand firm as a place that is open to diverse ideas and free expression. These are standards and principles that American University will not compromise.

Faculty may advise students before exposing them to controversial readings and other materials that are part of their curricula. However, the Faculty Senate does not endorse offering “trigger warnings” or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to “opt out” of engaging with texts or concepts, or otherwise not participating in intellectual inquiries.

Faculty should direct students who experience personal difficulties from exposure to controversial issues to resources available at American University’s Support-Services offices.

In issuing this statement, the Faculty Senate affirms that shielding students from controversial material will deter them from becoming critical thinkers and responsible citizens. Helping them learn to process and evaluate such material fulfills one of the most important responsibilities of higher education.

With warm regards,

Andrea Pearson, Faculty Senate Chair

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