Universities are taking divergent approaches to handling campus speech, safe spaces, and trigger warnings

On one campus, the administration has said in no uncertain terms that students expecting “trigger warnings” shouldn’t hold their breath. On another, a center for inclusivity is pushing a set of language recommendations called “Just Words,” advising students that using adjectives like “lame” or “crazy” could be microaggressions toward community members with physical disabilities or mental illnesses.

Some student editors at the two campuses — the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, respectively — are caught in the crossfire.

Those on campuses attempting to curtail use of language perceived as insensitive are faced with a question plaguing editors at student-run outlets around the country: Should they consider voluntary guidelines from campuses attempting to foster an inclusive climate, or does considering such guidelines essentially amount to accepting censorship?

Editors at the two schools’ student newspapers, the UWM Post in Milwaukee and The Maroon at the University of Chicago, seem at least sympathetic to their administration’s cause.

“If they were to (consider language recommendations),” said Maggie Loughran, the Maroon’s editor in chief, “or if I were at a different college that gave us a set of guidelines, I think that as a matter of principle we wouldn’t tailor our reporting or our writing to that set of guidelines.”

Then again, Loughran works for a newspaper at the university perhaps least likely to try to shape students’ speech. “We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” the administration told the incoming freshman class last week in a widely circulated letter.

Barely 100 miles away, in Milwaukee, journalists at the Post appear less threatened by the university’s “Just Words” program, which is based on a similar program at UC Davis.

Hailey McLaughlin, a Post news editor, said that while the newspaper is fully independent, it might be inclined to take a few of the recommendations into account. While McLaughlin said The Post was unlikely to give a second thought to words like “lame” or “crazy,” it’s possible more problematic language could get a second look if the issue arises — which it hasn’t yet.

“I’ve never actually had any issues with students using any of the words that the administration doesn’t want us to,” McLaughlin said.

The policy at UWM is merely a set of recommendations; there’s no enforcement and no penalty for violating the guidelines. Nonetheless, it’s a slippery slope, said Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship.

“If what they’re trying to do is to encourage a respectful, open discourse as opposed to one that’s full of diatribe and acrimony, that doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable,” Bertin said of inclusive language campaigns like UWM’s. “The problem is that these things tend to slip into mandatory and punitive and less capable of distinguishing disagreement.”

UWM has said the effort is about awareness, and the program doesn’t list penalties for violating the language guidelines. Some of the language should be easy to stay away from, anyway. The lengthy list of problematic phrases includes racial slurs and phrases like “retarded” or “illegal alien.”

But the list also includes language seen in everyday conversation — beyond just “crazy” or “lame,” the list also cautions, perhaps ironically, against use of the phrase “politically correct.”

McLaughlin said the theme of language sensitivity is widely discussed on campus, just not necessarily in the specific lens of the “Just Words” campaign. In general, conversations pertain to cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness, and emphasize mindfulness over legitimate policing of language.

“In our journalism class, last year especially, we talked about the fact that you can’t use euphemisms to talk about very serious subject,” McLaughlin said. “But you do have to be aware of certain groups and minorities and how you portray them. For example, we had someone from the LGBT center come in and talk about how to use gender-inclusive words.”

For now, the editors at UWM and the University of Chicago seem content with the way their campus is handling speech issues.

“In all honesty, I don’t feel like the university is really pushing this at all,” McLaughlin said. “The university really doesn’t push what we say. I haven’t heard the school correct us in any way, I haven’t heard anyone say anything from a writing standpoint.”

Loughran said that while the newspaper and administration function independently, this is a case in which the two bodies’ interests align.

“I think that we do have a mutual interest in protecting free speech,” Loughran said. “I think that in a university climate where students, whether they’re shutting down speakers or calling for safe spaces and trigger warnings, what they’re doing is shaping how they and those around them take in information. When the expectations change for how you learn and what you’re taking in, it’s dangerous to academia and dangerous to journalism.”

Bertin gave the starkest warning about any policy, whether or not it has a punitive element, that attempts to shape the way students speak.

“As a general proposition,” she said, “I’d say that these kinds of things are basically looking for trouble, and they’re going to find it.”

SPLC staff writer Lev Facher can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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