The University of New Mexico has started putting up trigger warning signs in front of some displays as part of a new policy that started last month. But, the Student Activities Center staff not only can’t articulate a consistent policy, they cannot even agree on whether or not the signs should be considered trigger warnings.
When Bethany Janzen, Rocky Mountain Regional Coordinator went to University of New Mexico on April 13th for the Student for Life group’s We Care display, about sexual assault, she saw a new sign; a trigger warning sign saying that controversial opinions would be found if anyone continued that way. The sign read, “Free Speech Zone Ahead. Topics Discussed May Be Uncomfortable or Controversial. The topics and opinions discussed are those of private individuals and not the University of New Mexico.”
When SFLA contacted the Student Activities Center, Rudy Montoya, a coordinator for the department told SFLA that the signs were new and would be put up whenever a group had a display. Montoya, who denied the characterization of the signs as ‘trigger warnings’, said the school was being fair in using the signs, putting them up near an art show on campus, a hair-cutting event, and recently before a climate change protest. However, as quoted in the student newspaper The Daily Lobo, Student Activities Center director Ryan Lindquist said they are trigger warnings. He told the student newspaper, “Those signs were put there basically as a trigger warning for people who may be uncomfortable with the content that is being discussed...so that those signs give people an opportunity to avoid or find a detour...to get around those spaces if they don’t want to engage in that type of event. We look to protect our students and the right to free speech.”
Yet, an investigation just that day found the signs were not only unevenly erected, the content of the warnings themselves differed.
For example, the hair-cutting event, which turned out to be a recruiting event to get students to sign up for the sexual assault awareness It’s On Us campaign, had a different warning, and actually used the word “trigger warning.” It should be noted that it appears the sign for the university-sponsored sexual assault awareness event appears much less threatening and sympathetic than the university sign for the sexual assault awareness event by Students for Life.
That sign said “Trigger Warning: Content Related to Sexual Assault Will Be Discussed Ahead.” The campaign appears to be backed by the university, and the trigger warning signs appear to be align with the campaign. The sign appears to be geared towards a legitimate concern for students who have experience with sexual assault versus the reason given by Student Activities, which is to help people avoid discussions and topics with which they do not agree.
Despite the claims by Montoya, not all groups had signs in front of them, including the sign-language club and a brewing club. Janzen noted tongue-in-cheek that as someone who does not drink alcohol that she could claim she ‘was offended’ by the brewing club and needed a trigger warning.
In an email response to inquiries by Students for Life of America, Lindquist, stated, “The University of New Mexico uses its “Free Speech Zone” signs for non-departmental and non-University sponsored events occurring on campus. These signs are assisting UNM staff in conversations with our students around our free speech and First Amendment responsibility.”
But, this policy is not being applied consistently. For example, according to photo evidence taken by Students for Life of America, neither a table for the Sign-Language club nor the brewing club had the free-speech signs in front of them. Lindquist reiterated in a response e-mail about the policy that he could only discuss the outdoor space policy.
As can be seen in the photos above, the university did not apply the policy evenly. While it can be argued that an issue like abortion is different than an issue such as sign-language or brewing, a university is not allowed to arbitrarily decide which events are controversial and which are not. This creates a situation where the university can decide that a protest in support of gun control, for example, is not controversial, but a protest in support of gun rights is. An event held by a Planned Parenthood group can be deemed to be about ‘women’s health’, while an event by Students for Life can be deemed ‘political’, and thus in need of warning signs.
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America stated, "Universities can not arbitrarily single out some views for warning signs. In doing so, they prime students to avoid and be offended by certain topics. While groups should be free to put up their own warning signs, no school should impose on schools this extra tax on speech, by influencing students to avoid certain displays. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, the United States is a free speech zone, something that school administrators should remember and respect."
Bethany Janzen, Rocky Mountain regional coordinator for Students for Life added, ““When I arrived on campus and found ‘Free Speech Zone’ warning signs surrounding the location of our We Care Tour, I was shocked. Over the past two years, I’ve hosted with the club multiple displays, including our fall ‘Stop the Violence’ Tour during which we handed out info cards with graphic descriptions of abortion. There had never been warning signs placed around those displays. But now when we are handing out consent cards and self-defense whistles and discussing how we can help both survivors of sexual assault (if an unexpected pregnancy results), there are warning signs? With 14 reported rapes at UNM in 2016, this is something that we need to address openly.”
Recently, Miami University-Hamilton Students for Life settled a lawsuit with their university over the uneven application of trigger warnings. In that case, the university sought to impose on the group mandatory warning signs in front of the group’s Cemetery of the Innocents display, even though the university had not applied the policy to other group’s displays.
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