Faculty Post: A Trigger Warning for Law Students

by Professor Libby Adler

Recently, students around the country in colleges, law schools, and other educational environments, have raised objections to classroom material that is “triggering”—i.e., has the potential to bring some traumatic memory to the surface during a class discussion. Many students have expressed a desire to be given “trigger warnings” before discussion of such material. Often, these requests have concerned classroom discussions of rape, though other sensitive topics such as racial violence have also been regarded as triggering, requiring a warning by the instructor.  See Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm and Trigger Happy.

In law school, it might be more efficient to let students know when the material is unlikely to be triggering. Law school is an environment in which students encounter painful material almost daily. If a legal education is to be truly effective, it must constantly confront issues of injustice in our world. Poverty, racism, sexual violence, incarceration, exploitation, divorce, custody battles, epidemic disease, war, genocide, bankruptcy, deportation, fatal and debilitating accidents, broken promises, denial of due process, denial of bodily autonomy, and inequality and discrimination of multiple stripes are the stuff of legal education—and hopefully, how to advocate for clients in the context of those social ills as competent professionals.

Many law teachers with whom I have spoken since the advent of the “trigger warning” phenomenon have opined that it would be easiest to simply state at the outset of their courses “Much of what we will learn could be upsetting. If you think you might be triggered, it is probably best not to take this course.” I think a warning probably ought to be offered to anyone contemplating law school. “It would be best not to arrive at law school unprepared to encounter upsetting topics or materials. Your classmates might disagree with you about matters that affect you personally and deeply. Judges write opinions that might strike you as outrageous and indecent. Professors are obligated to ensure that an array of arguments are aired, even arguments that you may find offensive.

This is not to say that law teachers and law students should not strive to create a sensitive environment, in which everyone is treated respectfully and in which painful topics are addressed with care. Together we are constituting a community, both within the classroom and in the broader legal profession. We should all be considerate in our language choices and tone.

Still, it is a mistake to believe that anyone in law school has the right not to suffer. Thoughtful, compassionate lawyers must learn to face the pain of conflict and often injustice with professionalism. Law school is the place to develop not only intellectual tools, but the psychological capacity for tolerating distressing opposition. Think about what our predecessors had to do to bring us the world in which we currently live, in which at least some past injustices have been vanquished. They did not run from their triggers despite often having suffered terrible trauma. Like them, we must face painful realities bravely if we aspire to being lawyers capable of making a difference.

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