The tablet on the front of Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus explains what has historically distinguished UW campuses from those in less-enlightened states.
"Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."
Since its founding a century ago, The Capital Times has championed the promise of "sifting and winnowing" that was expressed by the UW Board of Regents in their 1894 embrace of free speech on UW campuses. We have defended the right of speakers from across the ideological spectrum to appear on UW campuses. We have celebrated student groups that invite controversial and provocative speakers. We have erred on the side of civility, urging that those controversial speakers be allowed to present even the most unpopular remarks. We have chastised students who have attempted to silence speakers, and speakers who have attempted to silence students. We have recognized that the exchanges can get messy, but we have always known that the messiness is a part of that process of sifting and winnowing.
Unfortunately, the current UW Board of Regents — with the notable exception of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers — no longer recognizes this essential premise of the University of Wisconsin. They have made clear their abandonment of a commitment to sifting and winnowing, and the Wisconsin Idea that extends from it, by voting to restrict First Amendment rights on UW campuses.
The regents voted Oct. 6 for new UW policies that threaten to suspend and expel students who dare to protest against the hatred expressed by Nazis, fascists and defenders of the Confederacy against which thousands of Wisconsinites fought and died in the war to end slavery. The regents created special rights for proponents of bigotry while restricting the rights of students who object to bigotry.
Make no mistake about what the regents have done: They have said that if a student from Wausau or Richland Center or Green Bay or Milwaukee objects to the outright lies and hateful provocations of a speaker from New York or Washington, the student from Wisconsin can be silenced and punished while the outsider who has come to divide Wisconsinites against one another must be protected from honest questioning and open debate.
That is not sifting and winnowing. That is tipping the balance in favor of fake news, false premises and ignorance. The regents have voted to dumb down the discourse on UW campuses, to restrict robust debate, and to tell students that their views matter less than those of visiting provocateurs.
The regents who rejected sifting and winnowing, and the First Amendment, have shamed themselves and the UW System. If their infamy is not rejected quickly by the courts, it will harm the reputation of UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and the other great public universities of the state of Wisconsin.
What were the regents thinking? Some of them were, as UW-Madison senior Savion Castro complained, "capitulating to a band of right-wing extremists." For years, well-funded national groups have been waging war on academic debate, seeking to secure "safe zones" for right-wing speakers while attacking students and professors who do not defer to the rigid orthodoxy of the grifter politicians, crony capitalists, deniers of science and critics of cooperation who have forged a "new right" in order to promote old wrongs. These pathetic characters are so frightened by the prospect of robust debate that they demand that their audiences be silenced. Some regents appear to have chosen to serve as rigid ideological activists rather than stewards of the UW System.
But they are not the worst players. Regents President John Robert Behling told the board that voting to punish freedom of expression would show right-wing legislators who have been critical of the UW that there is now — on the part of regents and campus administrators — "a responsiveness to what's going on in the Capitol, which helps build relationships."
In other words, Behling encouraged regents to sacrifice sifting and winnowing in order to the satisfy politicians in the Capitol.
This was indefensible.
Equally indefensible was the claim by UW System President Ray Cross that threats of punishment were needed to "teach students how to engage and listen to those with whom they differ."
That is Orwellian doublespeak.
The new rules do not teach anything. They tell students to shut up or risk expulsion.
If the UW System was serious about making sure that all views are heard, they could establish a curriculum to teach students about the value of robust debate. Necessarily, such coursework would teach that there are times when cruel and divisive viewpoints have inspired protests, but they could explore all the tools that are available to mount creative and effective objections while maintaining an open discourse.
Even then, there would still be some messiness. That is the price we pay for free speech and for the right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances.
Cross and the regents have attacked those liberties for the most cynical of reasons.
We reject their attack because we actually care about the mission of the University of Wisconsin. And we know that it is harmed when, as Tony Evers warned when casting his principled "no" vote, the regents support a "policy that will chill and suppress free speech on this campus and all campuses."
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