A group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and faculty discussed the tension between protecting the educational experience of all students and safeguarding the freedom of speech at a Cap Times Talk Tuesday at Madison’s Central Library.
Last October, the UW System’s Board of Regents approved a proposal that requires sanctions on students found responsible for “materially and substantially” disrupting free expression by others more than once, including mandatory expulsion after a third incident.
The proposal mirrors a Republican-backed bill in the state Legislature. Don Moynihan, director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, said the public should be skeptical about the state defining the parameters of free speech.
“If I was a student, I would be upset by the fact that you have a group of regents who have essentially taken discretion away from campus in terms of how they set policies,” Moynihan said.
Jake Lubenow, chair of College Republicans of UW-Madison, said he felt the policy is needed to ensure conservative students on campus can express their views.
A Gallup poll released March 12 found that 61 percent of college students in the United States agree that the climate on their campus prevents some people from expressing their views because others might find them offensive. That percentage is an increase from 54 percent in 2016.
The poll also found that students still prefer a campus environment that allows speech and that students perceive conservatives as less able to express their views.
But results of a UW-Madison campus climate survey released last fall indicated politically conservative students were more likely to report feeling safe, respected and like they belong than students holding other political views.
In Lubenow’s view, the bill has not prevented any speech on campus.
“After the free speech policy was enacted, students were still allowed to protest, but they weren’t materially or substantially disrupting the event,” Lubenow said. “And that’s ideally what campuses should look for. They should look for both sides being able to speak.”
Madeline Heim, editor in chief of The Daily Cardinal, said students are concerned the regents’ policy will silence their voices.
“Students are worried that it is going to have a chilling effect on student speech,” Heim said. “It’s inherently going to produce a chilling effect because you won’t ever know if someone can express their speech to the fullest.”
Restricting hate speech and protecting free came to a boiling point when Young Americans for Freedom brought conservative public speaker Ben Shapiro to campus at the end of 2016. Protesters disrupted the talk, arguing that that it was considered hateful.
Ricardo Cortez de la Cruz II, an organizer for the protest, said he believes the university should restrict hate speech because it is “harmful and can incite violence.” Others like Lubenow, who denounced hate speech, believe any university policy that restricts speech is worrisome for students on campus.
Moynihan said social norms on campus are changing without laws dictating them. For example, he said there’s less tolerance for racially coded speech.
“In the long run, laws that restrict speech will tend to be used against the powerless by the powerful,” Moynihan said.
Outside of policies around free speech, Heim said the university can foster inclusivity and protecting speech by creating a productive environment where the two are not in conflict with each other. Leslie Bow, UW-Madison professor of English and Asian American Studies, said the university does this every day.
“It’s called go to class. That's what we do,” Bow said. “The whole idea of education is, in fact, to have that exchange of ideas.”
However, Moynihan said academic freedom does not mean that all ideas are given a platform.
“The job of university is to create and disseminate knowledge,” Moynihan said. “It’s not to provide equal balance for all perspectives.”