Panel discussion tackles content warnings in legal education and potential impact on academic freedom

Red triangle with exclamation mark with label "Content Warning" below

Despite ongoing controversy about the use of content warnings or so-called trigger warnings in university teaching, not one Canadian university is requiring its professors to provide them to students when teaching potentially sensitive content, according to a participant in a recent Osgoode panel discussion on the topic.

Michelle Miller Stafford, an assistant professor at Toronto’s OCAD University who conducted research on content warnings in the Canadian post-secondary context said most faculty members she and her research partner surveyed were in favour of providing warnings in order to respect the dignity of students – despite a 2015 policy statement by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) opposing them.

The panel discussion on content warnings in legal education and their potential impact on academic freedom took place via Zoom on March 13, 2023, and was moderated by Osgoode Professor Faisal Bhabha.

A full recording of the event is available here.

The CAUT statement, which is similar to one issued by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 2014, was re-approved in November 2022. It reads, in part, ““institutional policies that require or suggest that academic staff include trigger warnings as part of best practices in teaching interfere with the academic freedom of faculty to choose their own course materials and teaching methods.”

Panellist Benjamin Bellet, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University who has conducted research on content warnings, said a meta-analyis of studies that he and a colleague undertook concluded that the warnings do not change how people respond emotionally to potentially disturbing content, but can themselves cause short-term anxiety.

In response to warnings, he said, people generally do not take steps to avoid the content. But he said more research needs to be done on the effects of content warnings on survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In welcoming the panellists, Dean Mary Condon said the topic is timely for all post-secondary institutions but has particular resonance for legal education.

“Much of the data that we teach in the context of our courses and our classes is data such as court cases, where there already is an adversarial nature to the matters that are under discussion,” she said. “So within that framework, it becomes quite important to think of the importance and the value of content warnings.”

The panel discussion was organized by Osgoode’s Standing Committee on Teaching and Learning, Osgoode’s Equality Committee and the office of the Associate Dean (Students). Rounding out the panel was Ummni Khan, an associate professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University and Kevin W. Gray, a lawyer and legal scholar who teaches at Fordham University and is the editor of the 2022 book Normative Tensions: Academic Freedom in International Education (Rowman & Littlefield).