Trigger Warnings: What Are They?

Trigger Warnings: What Are They?This week we welcome guest writer Emma Case Beasley, a tutor with Law School Toolbox, to discuss what trigger warnings are and how you can navigate this issue in law school.

Unless you’ve been ignoring the news for the last few years, you’ve probably heard the phrase “trigger warning” or “content warning.” A trigger warning is defined as “a statement cautioning that content (such as an assigned text, video, or class discussion) may be disturbing or upsetting.” The original intent behind these warnings was to avoid triggering emotional or physical reactions (such as panic attacks) in people who suffer from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although they are sometimes used more generally to label material that contains difficult or potentially offensive content.

The practice of including such warnings on syllabi, in class, or before assigning certain readings is common, but hotly-debated. Even former President Barack Obama has weighed in, arguing that it is important to engage with topics you find uncomfortable. In some cases, however, a student may have a legal right to ask for accommodations, and those may include trigger warnings. Further, some academics have argued that giving warnings, whether legally required or not, is ethically responsible, and an important tool for making course content accessible to a variety of students.

It’s important to note that simply including a trigger warning for difficult content doesn’t mean a student will not engage with a topic, but can simply be a tool for helping students prepare for the topic. It can also be an opportunity for professors to point students to available resources, or offer alternative options for participation that don’t require students to discuss certain topics in front of their classmates. The Harvard Law School Harassment Assault Law-Student Team (HALT) provided a good example of this method:

We are discussing sexual assault tomorrow; this is especially difficult material, and, statistically speaking, there are […] sexual assault survivors in this class. I want to remind you that mental health services are available, and that you can come to office hours if you have thoughts about the material that you were not comfortable sharing in class.

Though the topic of these warnings is a thorny academic and cultural debate that will surely continue to rage, the more pressing question for law students who find certain topics distressing is how to handle it in your everyday life in law school. What do you do if you are personally confronted with a topic that causes you distress? How should you handle it? At what point is it important to involve your professors or your administration?

Asking For Accommodations

If you have a diagnosed condition which you think could be exacerbated by the mention of certain topics, your first stop should be your law school’s student services or disability services office. Like any medical condition, mental health conditions fall under the purview of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and your school will have a step-by-step process to determine what accommodations are necessary and feasible to meet your needs. If you haven’t been diagnosed, but think that you should be, be proactive: seek testing and treatment as soon as possible. If you’re starting law school this fall, consider reaching out to your school before you get to campus, so you can complete the necessary (and sometimes lengthy) steps required to request accommodations before class begins.

Seeking Other Help

If you don’t have a medical condition, but you feel you need a warning about certain content, you still have options. Like any other issue you have, whether it is academic or personal, one of the most important things to do is talk to your professors before it becomes an issue for you. Look at your syllabus, research your class, and think through whether there may be topics that you know will cause you distress. Maybe you’ve unfortunately been the victim of a certain type of crime; it might be reasonable to talk to your Criminal Law professor before the semester begins and request that they not call on you on the day that crime is discussed.

Remember that in general, law school professors grade anonymously, so you shouldn’t hesitate to talk to the professor about something you consider uncomfortable or worry that they will treat you unfairly as a result. Keep in mind, however, that law school professors are academics, and they may have strong feelings about academic freedoms and the appropriateness of trigger warnings. It’s fair to ask a professor to work with you, but keep your requests reasonable and limit their scope to the minimum necessary to accomplish your goals. While the conversation might be slightly uncomfortable, having uncomfortable conversations is most certainly going to be part of your life as a lawyer. Advocating for yourself and your needs will be good practice for advocating for your clients!

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your professors, think about the other resources available to you. Seek help from your student services offices or academic support office. They can be great resources for helping you manage thorny issues, whether it means simply strategizing for how to discuss these issues with your professors, or reaching out to professors on your behalf. The only way to know how they can help you is to ask!

Final Thoughts

Like anything else in law school, treat this as a challenge and a learning opportunity. Reach out early and be reasonable. Try to find ways to advocate for what you need while still engaging and participating as much as possible. There is a lot of tough talk in the legal world, and sometimes a culture that tells you you just have to ‘deal’ with the way things are. But a) that isn’t true, and b) that doesn’t mean you should suffer! Asking for accommodations or help from your school is not a sign of weakness or failure, in fact, it is just one of the ways you should continually advocate for yourself and your mental health. In addition to helping you navigate law school, you may also be charting a path for students after you.


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About Emma CaseBeasley

Emma Case Beasley is a graduate of Macalester College and the Boston College School of Law. She served as a law clerk to Joseph R. Goodwin, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. She also previously worked as an in-house attorney for a state legislature and a large research university. Emma lives in San Diego with her husband, who is a naval officer, her two sons, and their dog. In her spare time, she serves on the board of a nonprofit that welcomes new refugee families to San Diego, reads fiction, and loves to cook and bake.

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