Staff Seeks Balance Between Free Speech and Community Standards in Online Comment Moderation

The Editorial Board

Last week, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times argued that Oberlin is turning into “[a symbol] of the widespread scourge of campus political correctness and the glorification of victimhood,” due to the administration’s recent discussion regarding the use of trigger warnings in the classroom. Beside the fact that the article mischaracterizes the actual trigger warning conversation occurring on campus — for instance, professors are not removing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from relevant curricula because of its controversial themes — the idea that trigger warnings are inherently “distressing … potential incursions on academic freedom and inquiry” is flawed.

Trigger warnings exist in order to warn readers about sensitive subjects, like sexual violence or war, that could be traumatic to individuals who have had past experiences related to such topics, not to remove these subjects from academic discussion. They do not “glorify victimhood”; instead, they validate the life experiences of certain members of our community and allow individuals to make informed decisions.

Many Oberlin faculty have pointed out the difference between making students uncomfortable and causing them to experience symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Professor of Politics and East Asian Studies Marc Blecher said in a recent interview with The New Republic that “we need to … challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, to make students feel uncomfortable.”

He’s absolutely right to question the ramifications of trigger warnings as they apply to the free exchange of ideas. But when students feel so upset by memories tied to a particular subject that they feel they cannot participate in that dialogue, a process integral to liberal arts education is interrupted. Trigger warnings are a viable method of alleviating these situations. Ideally, individuals who are part of an academic institution should be challenged and forced to articulate and defend their perspectives, but in order to have a fruitful discussion about these topics, as many people as possible need to feel comfortable participating.

The problem of how to effectively create these spaces falls in line with recent conversations the Review’s senior staff has been having about formulating a comprehensive comment moderation policy for our new website.

We believe online comments serve a couple of important functions, including the facilitation of productive dialogue that extends beyond the moment of publication. Commenters can add information that doesn’t meet our contributor guidelines but might have a role in a related debate. Comments sections also serve as necessary spaces for individuals to provide publication-specific criticism. Importantly, these discussions are open to a wide audience of Oberlin-affiliated people and act as effective places for people from different backgrounds to talk about issues on a more even playing field.

The discussion about what form our policy should take is complicated. Not every member of the Editorial Board agrees on where the line between free speech and offensive/hate speech should be drawn, nor do we agree on the viability of trigger warnings as a response mechanism.

Additionally, comments frequently fall into a gray area in which the appropriate action by a web administrator isn’t clear. A legitimate opinion may be expressed by a commenter, for example, but accompanied by graphic images or other inappropriate content. Do we censor the comment? Do we include a trigger warning? The Review has already encountered several instances of this, proving even more urgently the necessity of establishing clear and firm guidelines.

As part of our discussion, the senior staff has reached out to various officials on campus who have experience moderating online comments, and we have examined the policies in place at other college newspapers. The Columbia University Spectator, for instance, outlines libel, gratuitous profanity, intolerance and self-promotion as grounds for deletion. Northwestern University’s The Daily Northwestern, meanwhile, adds impersonation of a person or group, intimidation of staff members and just plain irrelevance to the list of offenses punishable by censorship.

This is a discussion we want to extend beyond our staff. As a publication which seeks to serve the city and campus, we believe that community members should be involved in determining these guidelines as, after all, they will be the ones subjected to it once it is implemented. Trigger warnings or none, the Review wants to encourage free and active engagement with our online content — but not without a few boundaries.