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Friday, March 01, 2024

Thompson Center stands by free speech report despite concerns over methods

The Thompson Center is standing by the findings of a survey on student attitudes towards free speech after a trio UW-Madison professors publicly argued that the report’s science was faulty.

The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, a center at the UW which aims to promote good governance in the state through research and discussion, defended itself after a recent op-ed questioned the methods behind a report that found “troubling” attitudes towards free speech among UW-Madison students. The report, based on a survey of 530 undergraduate students at the university, found that 63% of students believed the government should punish hate speech and concluded that “more needs to be done” by UW-Madison to foster respect and understanding of the First Amendment.

In the weeks following the survey’s release, three professors from the university’s Political Science Department penned an op-ed for The Capital Times claiming the report “violates key tenets of social science research” and that “many of the conclusions presented in [the] document are not supported by its own data.”

The authors of the op-ed are Mark Copelovitch, a professor of Political Science and Public Affairs; Jon C.W. Pevehouse, professor of Political Methodology and the department’s Vilas Distinguished Professor of Political Science for International Relations; and Jessica L. P. Weeks, professor of Political Science and the H. Douglas Weaver Chair in Diplomacy and International Relations.

In an interview with the Daily Cardinal, Thompson Center Executive Director Ryan Owens said the center “absolutely” stands by the methods and findings of the report.

The critics claimed the wording of survey questions was vague and potentially misleading, including its use of the phrase “hate speech,” a phrase which has no official definition and could potentially be understood as violent or abusive speech that is not protected under the First Amendment.

Owens, who is also a professor in the university’s Political Science department, argued that the survey results were consistent for questions on other, less vague beliefs like climate change denial.

The report also found that over 40% of students thought the government should restrict the speech of climate change deniers, and over half thought the same should be done for “racially insensitive persons.” Owens noted the report’s findings were reflected in other surveys done on similar issues of free speech on college campuses

The op-ed also took issue with the presentation of findings throughout the survey, claiming it stashed in the appendix results that did not support its narrative — such as the fact that 88% of respondents agreed with the statement, “One person should not be able to prevent another person from speaking because they hold an opposing view.”

Owens said the report was partially a follow-up to a previous survey in which the Center found a strong understanding of general constitutional principles among students. It was also motivated by what Owens had perceived as an uptick in the number of students who expressed hesitance to share their thoughts and opinions in class out of worry concerning the reaction of their peers or instructors.

Some criticisms of the report contained echoes of questions that have surrounded the Thompson Center’s claim to nonpartisanship since its inception.

The Center, named for former Wisconsin Governor and current Interim President of the UW System Tommy Thompson, was founded in 2017 by Republicans in the state legislature. In announcing plans for the center, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos claimed it would “offset some of the liberal thinking on campus,” WPR reported. 

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Vos now sits on the six-member Public Leadership Board for the center, of which all six members are elected Republicans or have worked for Republican officials in the past.

The report’s findings state that surveyed left-leaning students tended to be more comfortable with speech restrictions than their right-leaning peers. The writers of the op-ed expressed concern, however, that most survey questions about such restrictions concerned topics that tend to come from the conservative side of the political spectrum, such as climate change denial or controversial campus speakers. The three professors went as far as to call the intent of the report into question.

“It appears to be a report specifically designed to reach a predetermined conclusion, namely that students, particularly liberal ones, do not value constitutionally-protected speech,” the authors wrote. “Neither of these conclusions is warranted by the report’s own data.”

Owens said that anyone claiming the report had an agenda is “absolutely mistaken.” He went on to more broadly denounce characterizations of the Thompson Center or its work as partisan.

“I would defy you or anyone else to find a center on campus that has been as energetic as we have been, that has been as forthcoming as various views as we have,” Owens said. “These attacks are just petty.”

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