The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents is poised to stake out a position firmly in support of an open exchange of ideas — including those considered unpopular or even offensive.
The Regents will take up a proposed resolution reaffirming the board’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech when its education committee meets Thursday in Madison.
The move comes weeks after UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank sent students and faculty a controversial message about speech, which critics said was contrary to First Amendment principles, and as colleges across the country weigh how to handle sensitive debates on campus.
A spokesman for the UW System said the proposed resolution is not meant as a response to Blank’s message. But the resolution addresses many of the same points brought up by Blank and others at UW-Madison over the past month, and was drafted with help from some of the professors who publicly criticized the chancellor’s email.
“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,” the resolution reads.
“Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought ... to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” the Regents added. “It is for the members of the university community, not for the institution itself, to make those judgments for themselves, and 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.”
Email led to concerns about free
Blank sent the email that prompted free speech concerns on Nov. 13, the day after a demonstration at UW-Madison in solidarity with protests at the University of Missouri over the experiences of black students on predominantly white college campuses.
Critics took issue with one section of Blank’s email in which the chancellor wrote, “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.”
UW-Madison professors John Sharpless, Donald Downs and Mary Anderson wrote in a guest column for the Wisconsin State Journal that Blank’s statement “may inhibit the free exchange of ideas on campus and ... is contrary to basic constitutional protections.”
“The clash of ideas constitutes the heart and soul of what a university is,” the professors wrote.
Blank sought to clarify her statement a few days after it was released, writing that the message was meant “as an appeal for civility and respect in how we deal with each other as a community,” and not as imposing limits on individual speech.
The Regents’ resolution addresses the same topic.
“Although the university greatly values civility,” the statement reads, “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas.”
Blank and UW-Madison officials have not commented on the response to her email, and declined Wednesday to comment on the Regents’ resolution.
System: Resolution linked to
‘much broader conversation’
Downs and UW System spokesman Alex Hummel said the statement was not meant as a response to Blank’s email, though Downs said her message “added to the reasons for doing it.”
“There’s a much broader conversation around the country that it’s connecting to,” Hummel said of the resolution.
The proposed resolution comes amid national debates over how colleges and universities treat controversial topics, with some arguing that institutions have gone too far in restricting speech that could challenge or offend students’ beliefs, and others saying those steps are necessary to make academic discussions more inclusive.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin took issue with aspects of the statement, pointing out that Regents policy on discrimination already recognizes First Amendment rights while seeking to limit discrimination.
“The proposed resolution might return the favor and ... recognize that freedom of expression and academic freedom will not be used to allow discriminatory harassing conduct that diminishes educational opportunity for any and all students,” executive director Chris Ahmuty said.
Downs, a professor emeritus of political science and constitutional law, said he and other professors have worked with Regent Tim Higgins since this spring to draft the resolution, after the University of Chicago, Purdue and Princeton issued similar statements supporting free expression.
The Regents’ statement, if OK’d by the committee Thursday and passed by the full board Friday, could offer some legal protection to someone “accused of saying something that he shouldn’t or she shouldn’t have said,” according to Downs.
“It could have some practical effect as well as some very significant symbolic effect,” he said.