Imagine, if you will, Gov. Scott Walker appearing before a packed house at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union delivering an impassioned defense of the results of Act 10. The students and faculty attending are silent throughout, except for the intermittent polite applause, and at the conclusion the chancellor graciously thanks the governor.
She was looking about for some way of escape, when she noticed a curious appearance in the air. “It’s the Cheshire-Cat,” she said to herself; “now I shall have somebody to talk to.” “How are you getting on?” said the Cat. “I don’t think they play all fairly,” Alice said, in a rather complaining tone; “and they all quarrel so dreadfully one can’t hear oneself speak — and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular.” “How do you like the Queen?” said the Cat in a low voice. “Not at all,” said Alice…. All the time they were playing, the Queen never left off quarrelling with the other players and shouting, “Off with his head!” or “Off with her head!” By the end of half an hour or so, all the players, except the King, the Queen and Alice, were in custody of the soldiers and under sentence of execution. (from "Alice in Wonderland")
Of the two scenarios, Lewis Caroll's seems more likely.
How is this possible? How is it that it remains virtually unimaginable that the governor of this state, a governor confirmed three times by Wisconsin voters, cannot appear at the state’s flagship institution to address the most consequential legislation in the state’s history without a potential riot?
The disconnect between the general public and the policies, practices and expectations of a university community are, of course, not something new. The Vietnam protests are certainly emblazoned on this state’s collective memory, and that of the country, of the University of Wisconsin. But what we have today is very different. The freedom of thought that was at the very heart of those 1960s' protests has given way to a repressiveness enforced by the student heckler, the fear of offending/safe spaces/hate speech codes and the masked thugs of Antifa. And some argue those sad realities are encouraged, or at least condoned, by the faculty and university as a whole.
Universities, of course, have been the cauldron for the mixing of incendiary ideas for centuries. Disagreements about all manner of academic issues are the very ingredients that make a university, and the research it spawns, worthwhile. It is a very lack of orthodoxy that has so demonstrably provided the discoveries that have made the great leap forward possible. Providing an environment that encourages the challenging of accepted science and challenging of ideas is at the heart of our reverence for academia.
It is, then, a grave concern when, as is all too obvious, the very idea of contemplative civil consideration of dissenting views appears nearly impossible to obtain. It is a grave concern when many find it hard to contemplate a civil discussion, held with respect, on the great issues of the day without the necessity of armed guards and metal detectors. Dissent, it seems, from the orthodoxy of university thought is itself a challenging proposition at the University of Wisconsin.
This state of affairs, however, is not yet permanent. Freedom of thought is an idea enshrined in and protected by the First Amendment's freedom of speech protections. Debate over the importance of that protection, its meanings and its limits is ongoing.
Earlier this month, University of Wisconsin Law School professor Anuj Desai and I presented a forum on those very issues, moderated by University of Wisconsin Political Science professor Ryan Owens, at the University of Wisconsin Law School. This week, he and I, along with professor Owens, will do the same at the Fitchburg Community/Senior Center, 5510 Lacy Road, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m. (It is open to the public and will be broadcast on Wisconsin Eye.)
Importantly, sponsorship of this forum runs the gamut from the Republican Party of Wisconsin to the American Constitution Society-Madison Lawyer Chapter to the MacIver Institute. Each of those groups may passionately hold very different views on policies and on the meaning of constitutional protections, but each is demonstrating its commitment to civil discussion by its sponsorship.
Many at the university believe they are committed to free speech and they cannot understand why the Wisconsin Legislature has been so very upset with what has happened on campus. Many in the Legislature cannot understand how the university can so openly crush views contrary to its present-day orthodoxy and cannot understand how the university expects them to turn a blind eye to such abuse. Many in the public are fearful that freedom of speech, as they have known it in their lifetimes, may soon become a thing of the past. Forums, such as the forum held earlier this month at the Law School and as will be held this Wednesday in Fitchburg, are an important start to address that lack of understanding and those very real fears.
Judge James Troupis is a former Dane County judge.
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