Board of Regents (copy)

UW-Stout students protest the Board of Regents' vote on the freedom of expression policy Oct. 6.

Like students across the state, I was shocked by the Board of Regents’ new policy attacking free speech on University of Wisconsin System campuses.

I knew far-right Republicans in the state Legislature like state Rep. Jesse Kremer and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had already tried to pass similar restrictions on students’ speech as part of their onslaught of legislative attacks on the UW System, and that even the Republican-majority state Senate had refused to take up the extreme legislation after the Assembly passed it.

But I hadn’t realized the Board of Regents was in the business of doing Vos and Kremer’s bidding.

The resolution, passed 19-1 by the Regents last month, mandates the suspension and expulsion of students who “interfere with” speaking events on campus. The policy explains: “It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”

Yet, as a poorly veiled effort to shut down student speech against conservative speakers, the regents are using their institutional power to effectively shield conservative students from all who challenge their ideas. The regents have created a system that provides extra protections for certain types of speech — right wing provocateurs like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos — at the expense of students of color and other marginalized students who they attack.

Cronyism and hypocrisy aside, this is clearly a policy in search of a problem.

Vos, Kremer and the Board of Regents seem to think that conservative students are somehow under attack on UW campuses, and more specifically at UW-Madison, and they are in need of special safe spaces. But the idea that UW-Madison is some sort of liberal paradise where conservative students live in fear is a myth.

In fact just the opposite is true. The data from the 2016 Campus Climate Survey conducted by UW-Madison was recently released, and it paints an entirely different picture. Not only do more conservative students report feeling safe and respected than do liberal students on campus, they are also less likely than liberal students to be expected to represent their entire group's viewpoint in class, something that particularly impacts students of color, who are consistently expected to represent their entire racial/ethnic group in predominantly white classroom settings.

As a person of color, I have experienced firsthand how students of color are not institutionally supported at UW. But rather than working to address the rampant incidents of hate and violence against students of color on campus or attempting to foster a more diverse and inclusive campus, the Board of Regents feels it pertinent to disarm students of the right to speech.

When conservative speakers parrot white supremacist, homophobic and transphobic speech on the campus we are told belongs to us, it inherently reduces the well-being and safety of already marginalized students.

As a community, we have the right and the moral imperative to speak out against those who demean, dehumanize and endanger us. But when we try to exercise this right and stand up for our own humanity and the humanity of our classmates, the Board of Regents wants to shut down our constitutionally protected right to do so.

If the Board of Regents and the UW System want students of color to believe them when they say they’re committed to making our campuses more welcoming and inclusive, they should immediately repeal this hypocritical and unconstitutional policy and get to work.

Chet Agni is an intern with One Wisconsin Now and Senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in Biology and Political Science with a certificate in global health.

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