The UW System’s speech policy will make Wisconsin’s campuses more toxic

In blocking “disruptions of free expression,” the UW System makes marginalized people easier to target.

In blocking “disruptions of free expression,” the Board of Regents makes marginalized people easier to target.


Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

The University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents left many with a lingering dread this October when it passed its “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression.” Similar to a bill working its way through the state legislature, this new policy puts a three-strikes disciplinary system in place for students who “disrupt the free expression of others”—yes, it’s that nebulous—and a new requirement to inform incoming freshmen of how to navigate their free speech rights on campus.

The policy reframes the debate around free speech on campus, placing it wholly within a perceived siege on conservative ideas. No campus in the UW System has experienced a riot or even an especially volatile demonstration in recent years (there was that oft-cited Ben Shapiro speech last year, at which the right-wing pundit wasn’t actually prevented from speaking), but these new speech policies use such incidents on other campuses as an excuse to subdue vehement protest in potentially any form whatsoever.

It serves no purpose to conflate the actual restriction of First Amendment rights with the messy clash of ideas and different modes of expression. Our Regents have made sure to acknowledge this distinction, claiming that conflict in dialogue is the very thing they hope to preserve. However, folks from marginalized identities worried about others intruding on their free speech need not apply, as this policy statement from the Regents makes clear:

“But 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. Although the university greatly values civility, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community.”

Further into the policy draft, the Regents use more vague language that may serve to contradict whatever insidious intentions linger behind this calculated move. While a community member cannot say anything, anywhere, the obvious limitations of these rights inform the very reasons UW organizers and protesters mobilize to demonstrate against toxic ideas:

“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 discriminatory harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university. In addition, the institutions may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt ordinary activities.”

You can’t understand this policy without considering the Republican lean of the Board of Regents—all but two of its current members were appointed by Gov. Scott Walker. Our Regents are conflating a leftist push against the most toxic ideas of the far right as a threat to all of the right’s ideas and all expressions thereof. The Regents would have us believe that the protests and shutdowns that Breitbart writers and alt-right pundits have faced elsewhere are a good reason to demand college students in Wisconsin surrender their own rights to protest (and the policy’s vague wording suggests they do so quite broadly) on pain of  punishment and expulsion. Our current collegiate political climate, statewide or nationwide, does not reflect this life-or-death narrative the Regents are advancing: a war on freedom, starring the sensitive snowflake liberals hellbent on eradicating conservative speech at every turn. In reality, this policy is an egregious attempt to silence left-leaning members of the university of community who use the tools of free expression to counter the hateful speech spreading throughout American society.

In my time at UW-Madison, I surrounded myself with folks from backgrounds across the spectrums of identity: class, race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, and beyond. It’s the very fabric of what a college experience should provide: an opportunity to challenge one’s ideas, to explore and expand the marketplace of ideas. Considering a few of my identities—Black, cis male, middle-class, Maryland, etc.—the weight and privileges of their intersections made for as many breakthroughs as challenges, even traumatic moments. Everything informed who I’ve become; I learned to protest in this city. I never did so at the direct expense of conservative ideas, but of toxic and hateful ideas that threatened and further marginalized folks I found community with. And for any uncensored, radical ideas I’ve communicated via writing or performance, I’ve been protected by the university at every turn without threat or penalty.

In all my time vigorously discussing ideas as a member of the UW-Madison community, I’ve never called for a white ethnostate, outed a trans student, or utilized my platforms to push any other dangerous idea threatening to harm other members of the community. These are the kinds of ideas that come from the likes of Milo and Breitbart. The community members who shut those folks down at other campuses in this nation did so because they felt endangered—not intellectually uncomfortable, not threatened by opposing ideas, but endangered in their lives and persons—and their institutions took neutral stances until it was far too late.

If it’s not the UW System’s duty to protect its community from the proliferation of targeted hate speech, where does our System draw the line at fostering an environment where one’s ideas can be challenged without compromising safety and integrity? Which threats to free expression are genuine enough or invasive enough to prioritize? Under the policy’s vague criteria, who actually holds the power to define acceptable forms of protest, and what’s to stop them from treating the mildest forms of dissent as radical violations of freedom? If our institutions remain neutral on absolutely everything, how can any campus pledge to protect its community from supremacist ideas—which become genocidal ideas once they proliferate—let alone any other ism or phobia threatening our communities?

If the Regents wanted to make a genuine effort to prevent the silencing of anyone’s ideas on a UW campus, they’d craft a free-speech policy through the sifting and winnowing they claim to champion. Instead, they continually threaten to exclude folks they disagree with from the free use of the UW System’s  intellectual tools, leaving them compromised and sacrificed in the name of right freedoms weighing more than all others. Some ideas should surpass a strong disagreement or offense; we shouldn’t restrict our entities from setting those parameters as a community to protect ourselves while we exchange those ideas.

If our Regents fear an intolerant and poisoned discourse, the fear should now compound upon itself. The floodgates are open for any and every fringe movement to maneuver its way into our marketplace, encouraging the kind of violence and bloodshed we cannot afford.

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