Here are definitions of some phrases used throughout this website.


Trigger warnings

Warnings designed to alert students that course material may trigger emotional responses, cause offense, or spark post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a report by the American Association of University Professors. In its policy on freedom of expression, American University does not endorse or discourage trigger warnings that would enable students to “opt out” of engaging with controversial course material.


Safe spaces

A campus climate that allows student to freely express their viewpoints without fear of emotional harm, according to scholars Lynn C. Holley and Sue Steiner. They are careful to note, however, that a safe space is not necessarily a comfortable space.


Free speech

A right granted to citizens of the United States by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The First Amendment protects even speech deemed offensive by some, such as political speech critical of the government or hate speech. The First Amendment “has no power over private entities,” according to American University Associate Professor of Communication Law and Journalism Division Director John C. Watson. However, he noted, many philosophies consider all universities, whether public or private, places where open competition between ideas is fundamental to education.


Hate speech vs. fighting words

Fighting words are expressions, including gestures, that are likely to incite violence on the part of the recipient of this expression, according to Watson. When speech is determined to be fighting words, the government is allowed to punish the speaker, making fighting words unprotected by the First Amendment. Unlike fighting words, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.



Veiled insults to minority groups. The term was originally coined by Harvard scholar Chester Pierce, who described microaggressions as “put-downs” carried out in an unconscious, “non-verbal” way toward African Americans.


Concealed carry

Carrying a weapon in a concealed manner. Concealed carry laws vary by state.


FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

FIRE identifies its mission as the need to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities,” according to its website. The rights are listed as freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.



Not referring to any one gender but to people in general.


Free speech zones

Areas set aside in public places for political activists to exercise free speech — usually involving political protest. They are also known as First Amendment zones and protest zones.



A person who identifies with their birth gender, according to the Oxford Dictionaries. Cisgender is the opposite of transgender, which means a person identifies with a gender other than their sex at birth.    


Social justice warrior/SJW

Social justice warrior, also commonly referred to as SJW, is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as an expression used to describe those who promote socially progressive views. The term is often used online, and is known to have a negative connotation.  


Young Americans for Liberty (YAL)

YAL is a student libertarian organization with chapters on over 600 campuses. It originated in 2008 as Students for Ron Paul, the former congressman who ran for the Republican nomination for president.


Word cloud illustration created by Katerina Pappas via