Political Correctness and Safe Spaces in the Law Library

by Margaret Ambrose

picture by Blue Diamond Gallery CC

As any of my co-workers can tell you, I am an avid political-news junkie, and this political season is a doozy. Political correctness has taken center stage, and academia is a major player in this discussion. Most recently, the University of Chicago sent all in-coming students a letter as a pre-emptive strike to outline their policy that they do not support or condone safe spaces and trigger warnings that would allow students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The University of Chicago letter also warns in-coming students that the University will not cancel controversial speakers on campus. The letter cites academic freedom to support what the New York Times called a “stark” statement.

Additionally, this 2015 Vox article further articulates how one professor feels that, in the current environment, his students have made it necessary for him to cull any material from his classes that might “offend” his students and result in the destruction of his career.

While law libraries may not be as much of a lightening rod to spark such discussions in the same way that university-wide policies do, there are, however, at least three areas that are highly relevant for law librarians to consider.

Reading Rooms & Safe Spaces

The first is the reading room and other study spaces in the library as ‘safe spaces’ for students. On the surface, this may appear to be straight-forward: of course the library should strive to provide a safe environment for all students to study, and even relax. Going deeper however, what is a library to do if there is a student who causes another student to become uncomfortable, either through unwanted advances, or obscene gestures? Similarly in areas where conversation is allowed, suppose one student overhears another saying something that the former student finds objectionable. In either example should the library investigate these claims? And what would constitute grounds for barring one patron from the premises on the basis of another’s claim?

An additional space to consider is library-exhibit cases.  At Cornell Law Library, we have several wonderful exhibits year round. Most are academic and present some of the law library’s unique resources like our Nuremberg Collection or our Scottsboro Trials Collection. David B.jpgThere is one small case, however, that sometimes has fun displays like David Bowie’s “cool” mugshot after being arrested in upstate New York  for pot possession. This last display has been taken down to make way for something else, but what if a student had raised issues with Bowie’s objectionable past, a fact the library was not aware of until after the display had been taken down?

At Cornell, we also had an exhibit in memory of Antonin Scalia. While having an exhibit is not the same as naming a law school or building, what if students had nonetheless objected to the exhibit due to Scalia’s controversial remarks about black students in elite universities. Certainly having clear policies for what is allowed, or not allowed is helpful, but no policy will be able to cover all of the complex issues that may rise when regulating, or not regulating, library spaces.

Sanitization of Hypotheticals

During law school, I was given trigger warnings in my criminal law courses when going over cases involving rape. Similarly, to what degree should research prompts in legal research instruction stay away from certain topics, or even come with trigger warnings?


picture by KAZ Vorpal on Flickr CC

While I haven’t used a research prompt dealing with sexual assault, I do tend to incorporate political news events into my research prompts to make it more interesting for the students to combat the issues most instructors find when using ‘canned hypotheticals’ that do little to capture the attention of students.

Taking an example from the ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ approach of the tv show Law and Order, last year, for example, I used a hypothetical involving a wedding planner as the client who was fired for refusing to plan a wedding for a gay couple. This coming year, I am hoping to use a hypothetical involving a defamation suit brought by Trump and Clinton.  Originally I had written the hypothetical only using Trump, but felt the need to rewrite the hypothetical so as not to offend any conservative students who may be planning on voting for Trump.  In light of this summer’s Watters’ World segments painting universities (including Cornell) as being intolerantly liberal – I felt this was necessary, and am still on the fence whether I should use this hypothetical at all.

Community of Professionals

The 2015 Vox article mentioned above cites a lawsuit being brought against two librarians who purportedly outed and shamed a colleague for being “creepy” and “celebrated the prospect of ruining his career.” The article uses the case as an example of rampant political correctness leading to decreased reliance on scientific thought and the need for proof to back-up claims of misconduct. This highlights another way that the current discussion about political correctness and safe spaces intersects with law librarianship because it deals with the regulation of norms within a group of people – in this case, a community of professionals.  As professionals who are part of a community, what are our obligations to make sure that law librarianship is as inclusive as possible?  Clearly, as with other professions, comportment is important; how the community polices or does not police behaviors is important to the diversity and health of the community and the profession. And as the Vox article points out, one can go too far, or not far enough (depending on the reading).

Final Thoughts

Discussion about political correctness is not going away anytime soon, especially with the increased political polarization driven by social media. Our students are coming to us as avid consumers of products like Facebook, and they are reared online in information bubbles. Even more troubling, the state of civics education in the US is “mediocre to awful” according to a 2003 report supported by the ABA which also expressed concern that “many young Americans are not prepared to participate fully in our democracy now and when they become adults.”


picture by outtacontext Flickr CC

Given that this problem takes root before students enter law school, what is the best way to give students the tools that they need to engage civilly with ideas and concepts with which they are unfamiliar or make them uncomfortable? It is a problem that cannot be ignored by anyone working in academia, whether as a freshmen English professor weighing the risks of teaching Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair, a criminal law professor giving trigger warning before reading sexual assault cases, or a law librarian deciding how to exhibit controversial collections.  Students should be given a vehicle to express their concerns over the content of their education. At the same time, we must remind students of the danger of preventing controversial speakers or subjects that they find abhorrent.

It is important to remember that these are complicated issues, and the questions that they raise have no definitive answers. That said, civility is of the utmost importance. Even if a person or group is espousing an idea that is not within the realm of political correctness, how that person or group is called to task is important. Demonizing or using language that mirrors the original bad conduct is not productive, nor is shutting down the conversation which will only force it underground. As satisfying as it might feel in the moment, it will most likely not improve the situation or allow for growth on either side. With that said, I will leave you with the wise words of Neil De Grass Tyson, and the equally informative (if not wise) words of Richard Dawkins.

About margaret.jane.ambrose

I work as a Access & Research Services Librarian at Cornell Law. I am also a Board Member of ALLUNY.
This entry was posted in Current Events, elections, Issues in Law Librarianship, Issues in Librarianship (generally), Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction. Bookmark the permalink.

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