Letter to the editor: Peaceful protests should not result in expulsion

Interrupting speakers is a fundamental part of protest that should not be punished by the university.

Image By: Leah Voskuil

In June of 2017, right after students left school for the summer, the Wisconsin state Assembly passed a bill called “The Free Speech Resolution” (SB 250), a policy that would punish students disrupting speakers on campus by threatening suspension and expulsion. In October, the Board of Regents adopted a similar policy. Its text does not specify what qualifies as disruption, and the committees have said that each reported incident will be judged on a “case by case basis,” despite the fact that there is no rubric for judgement included in the bill. If a student decides to protest a speaker, they can have their public education taken away for civil disobedience. The individual consequences, however, are minimal compared to the impact of this bill on the quality of public discourse and a wider civic culture. This bill sets a dangerous national precedent for all public universities.

This policy is widely understood as a response to protests of Ben Shapiro, when he came to speak at UW Madison last year. At the event hosted by Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative activist organization on campus, a group of students vocally protested during the first ten minutes of Shapiro’s speech. When asked by authorities, the protesters left the stage. Whether you agree with the protests or not, had the policy existed then, these students could be expelled from a public education for exercising their right to freedom of assembly. While some might find interruption a disagreeable tactic, should it be illegal? Under the Free Speech Resolution, students are punished for dissent.

The Republican Wisconsin state legislature has created a policy that silences protest while intruding on campus politics. Initially passed by the state Assembly and recently adopted by a Board of Regents almost entirely composed of figures appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and on its way to the Republican-majority State Senate, this bill is meant to protect conservative, Republican speech on campus — but from what? With no given definition of “disruption”, this policy is easily abused to uplift the free speech of some while diminishing the free speech of others, backed by an explicitly partisan philosophy.

I’ve attended many events where speakers have been interrupted. During an International Women’s Day panel hosted by the local International Socialist Organization chapter, a fellow undergraduate interrupted speakers, making it difficult to hear over his shouts. During the open comments, he grabbed the mic and proceeded to espouse his own political views. When he finished, more participants responded to his comments, myself included. I had never met this protester before, but felt that as a white leftist it was my obligation to engage in civic discourse. I spoke with him privately in a later conversation. This discussion, while difficult, was enriching and important.

If applied in a non-partisan way, the Freedom of Speech Resolution would have suspended or expelled that student.

However rude his interruptions were, they should be lawfully protected — not from community response, but certainly from in-school punishment. Without government interference, the community was able to handle his interruption in a way that was engaging, peaceful, and even educational for those in the room. Dissent, even disruptive dissent, is a necessary and healthy part of democratic discourse. Should the marketplace of ideas have government oversight? Those who support this bill should answer if they truly feel government should play a role in regulating discourse.

The bill purportedly aims to dissuade student protesters from interrupting public speakers, but it may instill a student fear of protesting at all. A community without the will to protest is civically dead. History knows that cultures of apathy and inaction are dangerous and anti-democratic. If someone incited violence in the University, students may be punished for protecting themselves through peaceful protest. Worse, students may not protest, fearing punishment for exercising their rights. Greater harm is done through silence than interruption. This is the grave irony of the “Free Speech” Resolution.

This dilemma also calls into question our definitions of freedom of speech. The constitution ensures that private citizens’ speech will not be censored or impinged upon by the government. While citizens are granted the right to freedom of speech, we aren’t granted freedom from community consequences for that speech. In other words, you can say what you wish, but you’re not immune from the response of fellow Americans. We exist within discourse, not in a vacuum. If someone speaks to UW students, they must willingly enter the space knowing that there may be a vocal response.

It is ahistorical to assert that public discourse has always been polite and uninterrupted exchanges between individuals at a podium. Politics affect lives. There’s a reason discourse is passionate enough to cause interruption. Productive discussion can be passionate while being logical, respectful, and honest — all without demonizing interruption.

Agree with their tactics or not, student protesters clearly care about their community enough to speak up. If State Representatives feel that students dissenting through interruption is inappropriate, then they should be in conversation with those protesters. A bill that threatens expulsion, however, is not a conversation about civic discourse — it’s a prohibition on students’ freedom of speech and an abuse of power by the state.

Instead of using these protests as an opportunity to engage civically passionate students, thinking critically about the role of public dissent in modern America, and taking a proactive role in creating spaces for discourse, the Board of Regents has decided to punish those who interrupt. A public university with a policy that punishes this basic unit of civil disobedience is not a university that teaches its students to be engaged citizens. Rather, it tells them to shut up.

Rena is a sophomore majoring in history with an individual major in community studies. Do you think interrupting speakers on campus is a viable form of protest? Please send any and all of your questions, comments, and concerns to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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