Letter to the editor: Alumni should protest new free speech policy

If students can no longer protest without fear of expulsion, Alumni should stand up instead.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

"If students can’t protest, who can? I’m not about to get expelled.” That is what a UW-Madison undergrad told me this week after I asked him how he was feeling about the Regents’ new policy threatening expulsion for students who engage in disruptive speech. He was calling me, as undergrads do every year, to ask if I would contribute to the university.

I have always donated, because I am proud of the university that blew wide open the doors of the world to me. Nine years after graduating, I use the lessons I learned in the concrete classrooms at Vilas and Humanities every day.

I’m a labor union organizer. In the daily dictatorships that are most American workplaces, the First Amendment is virtually non-existent. Even labor union members with just cause employment find themselves threatened with suspension, termination, or arrest for exercising their freedom of speech, even if doing so off-duty and out of uniform.

I’ve encountered this first hand in states across the country. But I have never feared. I was confident that employers would ultimately back down or lose in the court, because I learned about the deep, radical tradition of American free speech in classes at UW-Madison.

These days, we have reason to be more fearful. We do not, after all, know how free we can be under a federal administration that threatens to censor the press, that targets religious minorities, that demands employers terminate employees who engage in controversial public speech, that arrested more than 300 protesters in St. Louis in less than 20 days, and that is throwing the book at more than 200 activists who dared resist in Washington on Inauguration Day.

The old public debate about what is and isn’t protected speech and what role public institutions should play in facilitating or protecting certain types of speech has re-ignited on college campuses. This is not, however, by accident.

Anthropomorphic Twitter trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos have for more than a year engaged in a concerted campaign to legalize shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. They want to not just be free, but given special protection by public institutions to go to centers of ethnic, racial, religious, and economic diversity and scream white power, throw up the Nazi salute, wave the Confederate flag, and demand the expulsion of Jews, women, people of color, and trans people from public life.

After all, nothing is stopping them from rallying for their cause on State Street, at the Capitol, or in Library Mall. What stops them is their fear that their hate speech would have consequences in the form of rowdy counter rallies or antifascists prepared to defend against right wing violence. The state, they insist, must not merely allow it, but mobilize armed police to defend it against consequence.

In this political environment, it is difficult to interpret the content and timing of the Board of Regents’ October 6th vote as anything less than a defense of fascist speech, an assertion of its legitimacy in the pantheon of American political discourse. Despite their claims, the effect of this decision isn’t to establish broader tolerance or to remove the university from the process of deciding who does and doesn’t speak.

Instead, the effect is to chill left wing and moderate dissent. The Regents intend to wield their most powerful weapon — expulsion —against any student of conscience who defends the fundamental principles of the University of Wisconsin in a way that they consider indecorous. When all political power statewide and nationally is held by ultra-nationalists, white supremacists, or their collaborators, it’s farcical to suggest that the scale needs to be tipped in their favor.

So, if students can’t protest, who can? Alumni, that’s who. Here’s how:

First, by pressuring UW leaders and UW financiers to change course. It’s time for us to flood the phone lines, inboxes, and social media accounts of the Regents, the Chancellor, the Alumni Association, department chairs, and UW’s major corporate and family donors with messages condemning the new policy.

Second, by supporting students and student groups that may face intimidation or retaliation from authorities for exercising their First Amendment rights. It takes guts to risk your group status or individual education to speak out amid a crackdown. Alumni can help with financial and professional support, like pro-bono legal advice, and by shining a light on the activism of students at alumni events around the country.

If the Regents intend to carve out a safe space on campus for ultraright snowflakes, it’s up to alumni to use what power we have to counteract them, to defend those who actually face harm on campus and in our country today. When sifting and winnowing is under attack, what do Badgers do? Speak out and fight back!

Todd is an alumni from the class of 2008. What do you think about the Regents’ new policy? Do you feel your right of free speech is being protected or threatened? Please send all questions and comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com. 

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