A group of faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pressing campus officials for clarity on students’ free speech rights under a new policy adopted by the UW System Board of Regents.
“Any university must stand ever vigilant in protecting the right of those on campus and across the state to speak their minds on issues of concern. We must therefore express grave concern with recent changes mandated by the Board of Regents and the state legislature purporting to protect free speech,” begins an open letter sent Nov. 28.
The faculty members were reflecting concerns they have heard expressed by students who say that the new policy leaves them feeling constrained, said professor Christina Greene, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department. This is on top of a campus climate where students of color say they feel less welcome and there is an increase in racial incidents reported to authorities.
“We are responding to inhibitions on them in their response to what they see as hate speech,” Greene said.
The UW System Board of Regents in October passed a policy requiring discipline, including possible expulsion, of students who repeatedly disrupt the free expression of others in a substantial way.
The policy leaves a lot of questions unanswered, the letter points out:
How will university authorities determine that a meeting has been disrupted? Will they film every meeting and demonstration? How will university authorities ascertain the identities of students perceived to be engaged in unlawful behavior? Through the testimony of police officers? Through surveillance of student organizations? Who gets to do the accusing?
“Straightforward answers to these questions are needed if we are to avoid an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that hampers both academic and community-building missions,” declared the letter signed by Greene, as well as leaders of the American Indian Studies Program, Asian America Studies Program, Chican@/Latino@ Studies, African Cultural Studies and the English Department.
Students feel muzzled, Greene said.
“They’re extremely worried about suspension and possible expulsion. That would be a huge price to pay,” she said.
Faculty members understand that the policy has been imposed on campus administrators, Greene said. “We asked for clarity on how this will work in practice.”
Chancellor Rebecca Blank, in a Dec. 6 response to the letter, expressed her support of the right of members of the campus community to protest.
“My administration will continue to work hard to foster the free exchange of competing viewpoints, in a manner that allows alternative viewpoints to be heard but does not result in student discipline or require police intervention,” Blank said.
UW campuses have had the authority to discipline students who disrupt university authorized activities, she pointed out. “The change under the board’s new policy requires that students who ‘materially and substantially’ disrupt the free expression of others on two or more occasions be subject to certain sanctions.”
Before a student is disciplined, the policy requires that two complaints be made, an investigation be conducted and a hearing held that finds the student has violated the policy, Blank said.
While the types of conduct classified as materially and substantially disrupting are not defined in the policy, Blank said she expects guidance on what that conduct is through rules to be created by the UW System.
As the policy is develops, “I expect to share my view that ‘disruption’ only occurs when a speaker in a venue cannot be understood by most attendees. This would suggest that any protests outside the venue cannot constitute disruption of a speaker, nor would protests inside the venue that were silent,” Blank wrote.
Blank remarked that the campus has had relatively few issues around disruption of speakers, and commented: “I would like to think that this is reflective of UW-Madison’s long commitment to the free exchange and debate of competing viewpoints.”
The policy adopted by the UW Regents mirrors a Republican legislative bill that was approved in the Assembly, but not brought to a vote in the Senate.