uw-madison black out march

UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank was criticized for a message cautioning against "devaluing others" after a Nov. 12 rally in solidarity with students at University of Missouri who ousted top administrators over race issues.

As African-American students at UW-Madison join others at universities across the country in demanding inclusive campuses, the UW System Board of Regents developed a statement reaffirming its commitment to free expression that also sets limits on acceptable responses to offensive speech.

The resolution to be considered when regents meet Thursday and Friday in Madison calls on members of the university community to maintain civility and a climate of mutual respect during heated debate.

The statement invokes UW’s famed 1894 commitment to open inquiry through “fearless sifting and winnowing.” It also prohibits university community members from interfering with the freedom of others “to express views they reject or even loathe.”

The resolution will be taken up first by Board of Regents education committee on Thursday afternoon and sent to the full board on Friday.

UW-Madison students plan to protest what they are calling institution racism at UW campuses at the Friday session.

The regents’ resolution makes no mention of race relations, but it is around the issue of race relations on campus that the current debate about free speech is being waged at the nation’s universities, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told faculty members Monday.

“On this and on virtually every campus there is an ongoing conversation with our black students about inclusiveness or lack of inclusiveness in this community for our students of color,” Blank told the Faculty Senate. UW-Madison’s contribution to that conversation includes a new campus “Framework for Diversity” administrators are in the process of implementing, she noted.

“At the same time, there is an ongoing discussion about free speech and what free speech means,” Blank continued. “From my point of view, respect for diversity, listening to multiple voices, and being diverse and inclusive on campus is not and should never be antithetical to principles of free speech. I hope those conversations can coexist and can move together rather than be seen as in conflict with each other.”

Asked about the genesis of the regents’ resolution, a UW System spokesperson said it was crafted after several regents "shared thoughts and guidance given similar recent statements and resolutions by peer institutions around the country.” A link he provided to the website of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities lists 15 universities that have made statements on inclusiveness and free speech.

Most of those statements cite events at the University of Missouri, where student protests — and the football team’s threatened strike — over handling of racist incidents forced the resignations of two top administrators on Nov. 9.

The powerful events at Missouri touched off simmering resentment over flaccid responses to racist incidents on campuses across the country and ignited a new round of debate on free speech as black students condemned speech they said made their campuses unsafe for them.

Controversial Halloween costumes provoked debate at campuses as diverse as UW-Stout and Yale, where an instructor’s email suggesting the university not police offensive costumes stirred a storm of criticism that led to her resignation.

Blank came under fire from students and faculty because of an email message she sent to the campus community after a peaceful rally on Nov. 13 that drew 600 black students and allies to Bascom Hill in solidarity with Missouri students, but soon focused on racial incidents at UW-Madison.

Blank’s email to students, faculty and staff said in part: “While individuals are always free to express their own beliefs, no one is entitled to express them in ways that diminish others, or that devalues the presence of anyone that is part of our Badger community.”

Emails to Blank obtained by the Capital Times under the state’s open records law included objections from students who feared she meant to unlawfully restrict speech.

“Devaluing the presence’ or ‘diminishing’ someone — which I take to mean patronizing, insulting, or dehumanizing language — is very much protected speech, whatever you or I might think of the particular speaker or utterance,” wrote one.

It’s not just the specter of restricting speech in Blank’s email that is troubling, wrote another.

“In addition to illegality, it also represents an ethically troubling view of the role of the university administration in interfering with the First Amendment rights of students,” he said.

The offending clause of Blank’s message also prompted three faculty members to pen an op-ed piece articulating their concern that it “may inhibit the free exchange of ideas on campus and that it is contrary to basic constitutional protections.”

Also troubling to them was Blank’s link to a website that encouraged members of the campus to report “an incident of hate or bias” without defining “hate” or “bias.”

“This provision suggests a campus-wide call for us to inform anonymously against one another for simply being inappropriately insensitive or uncaring,” they wrote. “How such Orwellian reporting can be reconciled with the values of a free society awaits its apologist.”

The regents’ proposed resolution responds to at least one concern raised by critics of Blank’s message. It declares that it is up to members of the university community, not for the institution itself, to judge what speech is “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” And for them, too, “to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress exploration of ideas or expression of speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

The proposed resolution also cites legal limits to free expression, including genuine threats, privacy interests and false defamation. In addition, the university may under the law reasonably limit the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt ordinary activities, it states.

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