Crisis and Trigger Warnings: Reflections on Legal Education and the Social Value of the Law

By: Kim D. Chanbonpin, The John Marshall Law School


In the same moment that law schools are embracing neoliberal strategies in response to the economic crisis caused by declining admissions, students in the classroom have begun to agitate for advance content notices (or “trigger warnings”) to alert them to any potentially trauma-inducing course materials. For faculty who have already adopted a defensive posture in response to threats to eliminate tenure, this demand feels like an additional assault on academic freedom; one that reflects a distressing student-as-consumer mentality. From this vantage point, students are too easily cast as another group of adversaries when, in actuality, students are straw targets who have little power compared to the real threat—the unchecked corporatization of legal education. This essay attempts to redirect faculty outrage back to the proper mark by decoupling the trigger-warning movement from the broader phenomenon of the neoliberal law school. It presents an alternate reading of trigger-warning mandates: as a student critique of legal pedagogy that demands access and opportunity for all students to fully engage in classroom discussions that can be difficult and are often painful. Trigger warnings give lie to the myth that law is based on dispassionate and objective legal analysis. Seen this way, trigger warnings invite students to become partners in the production of knowledge, while allowing faculty to maintain intellectually rigorous classroom environments. Faculty cannot afford to view students as antagonists. Instead, students should be enlisted as allies in our efforts to challenge the orthodoxy of market-based solutions to the legal education crisis.

Cite as: Kim D. Chanbonpin, Crisis and Trigger Warnings: Reflections on Legal Education and the Social Value of the Law, 90 Chi.-Kent. L. Rev. 615 (2015).