Oxford Law Lets Students Skip Uncomfortable Lectures

(Image: Reading Room, Bodleian Law Library, Oxford University)

(Image: Reading Room, Bodleian Law Library, Oxford University)

Oxford University, one of the oldest and most respected law schools in the world, has asked its teaching staff to warn criminal law students before teaching  “potentially distressing” content.

The new policy allows the aspiring attorneys and barristers to leave the classroom if they find the subject matter to be too violent, writes Kieran Corcoran of Heat Street. A law student already confirmed that before class about sexual offenses, including rapes and sexual assaults, the professor provided trigger warnings that the content could be distressing to some and that they were free to skip the lecture.

Because criminal law is a substantial part of the Oxford’s law curriculum, it is unclear for now how students will pass their compulsory exams if they avoid distressing content. The official Law Department guidance refers to the criminal law module as “essential” to any legal education, and it also describes the course material as “colorful.” Cases of death, homicide, and sexual assault are an inevitable and unavoidable part of the criminal law curriculum. Nobody can graduate from Oxford Law School without passing the criminal law exam.

The changes were branded as ridiculous by Oxford professors and other teaching staff, writes Ben Kew of the Breitbart. Law lecturer Professor Laura Hoyano commented:

“We can’t remove sexual offenses from the criminal law syllabus – obviously. If you’re going to study law, you have to deal with things that are difficult.’

An Oxford spokesman defended the new rules by saying that the university tried to develop students’ critical and independent thinking, but it did not necessarily aim to protect students from material they might find too violent:

“However, there may be occasions when a lecturer feels it is appropriate to advise students of potentially distressing subject matter.”

The trigger warnings were not limited to the Oxford Law School. They spread elsewhere in the university, with one English student telling Sanchez Manning and Charlotte Wace of the Daily Mail that a professor warned her about Robert Lowell’s poem For The Union Dead because it contained a racial slur.

According to sociologist Professor Frank Furedi, the trigger warnings had a negative impact on the quality of intellectual freedom on campus:

“It’s really regrettable that Oxford, which used to be a bastion of academic excellence, is allowing these pressures to create conformism.”

Oxford-educated lawyers hold some of the top positions in Britain’s public life. Among its alumni are members of the supreme courts worldwide, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the current Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Those in opposition to the policy have claimed that it would be better if the university forces prospective judges and lawyers to confront what they fear rather than let them remain uneducated.

As Robby Soave of the Reason writes, Oxford University has followed the example of American law schools by discouraging the teaching of uncomfortable subjects such as laws relating to sexual assaults. Recently, a Harvard University law professor, Jeannie Suk, reported that teaching rape law has become a challenging task for many of her colleagues. Some of the students who experienced sexual assaults themselves veto the discussion of such subjects because they found them offensive. Facing such problems can make professors inclined to skip the most uncomfortable subjects.