Sifting and winnowing

The plaque at UW-Madison's Bascom Hall that calls on the university to encourage the "sifting and winnowing" for truth.

A committee of the UW Board of Regents reaffirmed its support for free speech Thursday by unanimously approving a resolution inspired by debates over how colleges should handle sensitive or divisive subjects.

The resolution, which was written by a group of Regents with help from some UW-Madison professors, states that the university may not suppress the free exchange of ideas, even if some on campus find those ideas “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

“There’s no better time — and there’s never a bad time — to affirm our commitment, as an academic institution, to academic freedom, to freedom of expression and to freedom of speech,” Regent Drew Petersen said Thursday.

The full Board of Regents will take up the resolution on Friday.

UW-Madison professor Donald Downs said he has worked with the Regents for months on the statement and said it was not meant as a response to the controversy that followed an email sent by Chancellor Rebecca Blank about a recent campus demonstration.

Instead, Downs said, the resolution is an attempt for the UW System to weigh in on a debate that has swirled around academia recently over whether and how universities should regulate speech about controversial issues.

Downs cited examples of universities that have rescinded invitations to controversial speakers and criticized what he said were “overly aggressive” attempts to identify and eliminate so-called “micro-aggressions” — perceived subtle or minor slights toward minority students or others that combine to make them feel unwelcome on campus. Critics, Downs among them, have questioned whether those efforts have limited debate on campuses and put unreasonable restrictions on free speech.

“In recent times, the commitment of other colleges and universities to academic freedom and freedom of expression has been publicly called into question,” said Regent Tim Higgins, who also worked on the statement. “Adopting this resolution ... answers an unspoken question on the minds of many of our stakeholders.”

Supporters of efforts to eliminate micro-aggressions and provide trigger warnings on academic content that victims of trauma might find distressing — another practice Downs took issue with — counter that such actions are necessary to make academic discussions more inclusive, and do not necessarily inhibit free speech.

Downs acknowledged the role those efforts can play in allowing all students to learn, but cautioned against universities becoming overly involved in that process.

“It’s appropriate for us to take those things into consideration when we deal with students,” Downs said. “But we should not do so in a way that’s going to inhibit the honest presentation of ideas, and they should not be required by university policy, because then they will become things like speech codes — which are invariably applied badly.”

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