The University of Wisconsin (UW) officially backed the First Amendment this past Friday, passing a resolution proposed to the Board of Regents aimed at determining whether or not free speech should be protected on campus. The resolution was passed by a vote of 16 to 2, affirming the importance of academic freedom and freedom of expression.
“The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System hereby reiterates its commitment to the principle of academic freedom and affirms its commitment to the principle of freedom of expression,” the resolution, emailed to The Daily Wire by UW spokesperson Alex Hummer, reads. “Academic freedom includes the freedom to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression, and to reach conclusions according to one's own scholarly discernment. Freedom of expression includes the right to discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions on all matters both in and outside the classroom. These freedoms include the right to speak and write as a member of the university community or as a private citizen without institutional discipline or restraint, on scholarly matters or on matters of public concern.”
Student protesters at UW complained that the resolution will allow offensive language and oppression against black students to occur on campus, which will negatively affect students’ learning experience.
“Maybe I can’t pay attention in class because someone calls me the N-word on my way to school. Micro-aggressions happen continually, so any effort to decrease those increase opportunity for students of color, women, queer folks to have space that is not oppressive to learn in,” Nneka Akubeze, executive director of United Council of UW Students, Inc. said, adding, “I don’t think limiting micro-aggressions is limiting free speech or limiting the opportunity to have an equitable education.”
A group of roughly 30 UW students and allies who were against the resolution supporting free speech staged a silent protest at the Friday meeting after they were denied a chance to present a list of demands to the Board of Regents. They held signs with slogans such as “Racism is on our campus” and “Ignoring racism won’t make it go away.”
Later that day, Regent president Regina Millner and UW System president Ray Cross agreed to meet with them, but the meeting was canceled after the students demanded that the media be allowed in, thus tanking an agreement with school administrators.
Two UW professors, Donald Downs and Leslie Hunt, protested that the university’s speech code already restricts free speech by attempting “to advance the value of social justice at the expense of the value of free speech.” The professors suggested that the code does not need to be reinforced, but reformed, and that microaggressions can be dealt with in ways other than criminalization.
“Students who are seriously offended by things a professor says should bring the problem to the attention of the professor. If they are not happy with the results, they can go to the professor's chair and, if need be, the departmental grievance committee," they wrote in a statement.
The best way to empower students in the long run is educate them well, to enable them to think critically and rigorously, rather than come to preordained conclusions on issues of social justice. For this they need teachers who are free. That is perhaps the worst thing about the code: it diminishes the quality of the education students are getting, and thus damages our best hope of achieving justice in the end.
In the past, the UW had tried to appease social justice protesters by concluding that the phrase “everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” is a “racial microaggression” and is “offensive” to black people.
Despite its alleged commitment to free speech, the Friday resolution maintained the university can limit speech that is “incompatible with the functioning of the university.”
The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not mean that members of the university community may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. Consistent with longstanding practice informed by law, institutions within the System may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university.
Ari Cohn, a spokesperson for the Freedom of Individual Rights in Education, said that the university has the right to use its own speech to take positions, express their own values in educating students, and “even criticize speech with which it disagrees. What a university may not do, however, is state or imply that students who exercise their First Amendment rights may be disciplined under university policy.”
"Freedom of expression includes the right to discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions on all matters both in and outside the classroom. These freedoms include the right to speak and write as a member of the university community or as a private citizen without institutional discipline or restraint, on scholarly matters or on matters of public concern.”
Resolution passed by University of Wisconsin Board of Regents
Cohn was skeptical of the UW's commitment to protecting free speech on campus. In an email to The Daily Wire, he wrote:
When Chancellor Blank wrote that nobody is "entitled to express [their beliefs] in ways that diminish others, or that devalues the presence of anyone that is part of our Badger community," she came dangerously close to that line. Speech that diminishes or devalues others is generally protected by the First Amendment, and Chancellor Blank's message that students are not "entitled" to such freedom of expression at a public university is unambiguously incorrect. At a bare minimum, Chancellor Blank's message is deeply chilling to campus discourse, as students will more likely refrain from engaging in protected expression than risk being investigated and possibly disciplined for offending others. This is an untenable result that is at odds with UW-Madison's legal obligation to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students.