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Monday, February 26, 2024

As UW students call for expulsion, officials cite free speech protections, policy barriers

Students and campus organizations want a UW-Madison student expelled after she said racial slurs and other violent remarks directed toward Black people. But university officials say the legality of disciplinary action is complicated.

Students are photographed staging a silent sit-in protest inside Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on May 3, 2023. The protesters sat in silence while awaiting the arrival of Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin.
Students are photographed staging a silent sit-in protest inside Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on May 3, 2023. The protesters sat in silence while awaiting the arrival of Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin.

Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition to expel a white University of Wisconsin-Madison student recorded saying racist slurs as student calls for administrative action grow.

The petition, titled “The Expulsion of Audrey Godlewski,” circulated online after a video showing Godlewski, a UW-Madison sophomore, using racial slurs and violent remarks toward Black people surfaced Monday. The Daily Cardinal was able to independently verify Godlewski is the individual in the video. 

UW-Madison student Darius Lassiter created the petition Monday. The petition garnered more than 43,000 signatures as of Thursday morning. 

“We need to set an example for the future students to come and for the students who have done the same but have not been caught,” the petition states.

The student petition comes as UW-Madison officials face widespread scrutiny for their response to the racist video. 

More than 200 students marched on campus and held a sit-in protest in Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin’s office to deliver a list of nine demands from the university following the video’s circulation, the first of which called for an “immediate investigation” into potential expulsion for Godlewski.

Increased funding for “safe spaces for students of color” and mental health services were also among the demands delivered to Mnookin.


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Students are photographed marching and chanting on University Avenue on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on May 3, 2023. The protesters marched from Lake Street to Charter Street before marching down Johnson Street to East Campus Mall. They eventually returned to the Red Gym where the crowd dispersed.


Community response to racist video grows

At least a dozen student organizations — including the Wisconsin Black Student Union and Gamma Epsilon chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest intercollegiate historically African-American fraternity — condemned Godlewski’s words via Instagram posts and statements Monday and into Tuesday. 

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“Our community saw a video released of another UW-Madison student saying racial slurs and expressing hatred towards BLACK men in particular,” Alpha Phi Alpha Gamma Epsilon said in an Instagram post. ”Behavior from the video should not be condoned because it will set precedent for students in the future to continue similar acts of hate and perpetrate racism.”



Campus, city and state leaders, including Madison District 8 Alder MGR Govindarajan and state Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, offered similar rebukes late Monday and into Tuesday.

“The University has an obligation to protect their students of color: to make us feel welcomed, make us feel safe, make us feel like you want us here for more than just diversity points,” Govindarajan said.

Currently, 790 students are counted under “African-American (Only)” in UW-Madison’s 2022-2023 Data Digest, representing 2.2% of the 35,184 undergraduate students reported in 2022.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor did not have specific enrollment data she could share during Wednesday’s protest. However, she said the numbers of “diverse students” admitted and who have committed to the university “are the highest they’ve ever been.” 

That means the university will need more spaces, programs and services for those students, Reesor added.

Ndemazea Fonkem, former Associated Students of Madison (ASM) chair, voiced her pain in a statement read at an ASM town hall Wednesday. Fonkem left ASM leadership for a reason, she said. 

“I will no longer be paraded around as the scapegoat for an institution that never cared about me.”

In an interview with The Daily Cardinal prior to the town hall on Monday, Fonkem contrasted the “covert” racism UW-Madison students of color face — including exclusion, lack of faculty and staff of color and other aspects of university life — with the “overt racism” of the video. “I’m shocked that someone said the quiet part out loud,” she said.

“My response is to sit with the people affected and celebrate their joy,” Fonkem added. “I'm a person who enjoys joy. This can't steal that.”


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Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor speaks with students sitting in a silent demonstration outside of Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin's office.  


Legal constraints on disciplinary action

Although thousands of students have called for Godlewski’s expulsion and multiple organizations said disciplinary action should be taken, university officials maintain that Godlewski’s speech in the video is protected by law.

UW-Madison said Monday it cannot limit the content of posts made by students and employees on personal social media accounts or take action against posts that are not unlawful. 

LaVar Charleston, UW-Madison’s deputy vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion, restated the university’s message in another email statement late Tuesday night.

“Simply stated, the law does not allow the university to take punitive action for words like these spoken in private spaces, even when those words are racist and hateful,” he said.

Student hate speech is largely unregulated under current UW System Board of Regents administrative code. Chapter UWS 17 of the code, which details actions that can cause students to be subjected to disciplinary action for nonacademic misconduct, does not mention hate speech on or off school grounds. 

Students mentioned the policy in demands delivered to Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin during a Wednesday demonstration organized by The Blk Pwr Coalition, a student group on campus. One of their demands asked UW-Madison to “propose and support bylaws”' establishing a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech in the UW System Board of Regents’ nonacademic disciplinary procedures, including expulsion provisions for “overt racial hostility” across all UW System campuses.

However, Chapter 17 rules are partially the result of a 1991 Wisconsin Supreme Court case, UWM Post v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. 

In the case, the UWM Post, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student newspaper, sued the UW System alongside other plaintiffs for its rules regarding non-academic misconduct and hate speech. The UWM Post said guidelines on punishable speech were “too broad and ambiguous.” 

After the UWM Post won the lawsuit, those rules were removed from UW System policy.


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Graffiti reading "racism is still breathing" appeared on the side of Mosse Humanities Building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus shortly before 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 4. The graffiti was removed within minutes.


Chapter 17 limits responses to bias incidents, officials say

Dean of Students Christina Olstad explained the university’s process for hate and bias incidents during Wednesday morning’s demonstration.

“What the conduct office will do is look through Chapter 17 and see if a violation occurred,” Olstad told more than 200 students gathered outside Mnookin’s office. Olstad added that the individual status of students implicated in a hate or bias report is protected information under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

A bias incident is an act creating “an unreasonably intimidating, hostile, or offensive work, learning, or program environment” that could be reasonably concluded to have been based upon characteristics such as age, gender, sexual orientation or race, according to the Dean of Students Office website. 

But the definition is used “for reporting and statistical purpose only [and] carries no independent sanctioning weight or authority,” the office clarifies on its website

Approximately 1,000 bias/hate reports were submitted to the Dean of Students office as of Wednesday morning, according to Olstad.

Though a bias report does not carry sanctioning weight, it is possible the statements made by Godlewski might not be protected, UW-Madison Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies Howard Schweber said.

Speech in certain situations, such as “fighting words” directed at a specific individual in a face-to-face setting, might not be protected under the First Amendment or university policy, Schweber clarified.

But Schweber said present facts don’t show a basis for disciplinary action.

“What the university can do and has done is declare its opposition to the attitudes that were expressed and the conduct of the student,” he added

Even if the university were to expel or otherwise discipline Godlewski, they would likely not be able to release her name publicly under FERPA regulations

As of Thursday morning, Godlewski was no longer in UW-Madison's student directory. The university could not comment on whether Godlewski was still enrolled. 


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Protesters reject university letter

Students at Wednesday’s protest fiercely rebuked the university’s response to calls for Godlewski’s expulsion. During the event, dozens of students told Charleston they felt his email — which stated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “protects a person’s right to say very offensive and hateful things” — failed to properly deter student use of hate speech.

“You said it was OK for people to think that and say it and express it, to the students — you said that was OK,” one student said. 

UW-Madison sent out an email to students Tuesday night addressed from LaVar Charleston, deputy vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, and Elzie Higginbottom, director of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement. 

Charleston’s response came just over a day since the university issued its first statement addressing the racist video Monday evening.

“I believe this painful circumstance also presents us with a chance to take this difficult moment and use it to help make us better, stronger and more inclusive,” Charleston wrote. “Hate in all its forms has no place on our campus.”

Charleston also condemned threats of violence directed at Godlewski and the other individual shown laughing in the video.

“There are reports that the individuals on the video have faced threats of violence and harm,” Charleston wrote. “That too must be condemned, just as forcefully as we condemn the racist message itself. And while we condemn racist actions, we also must understand that our campus is and must be a place for learning and growth.”  

Charleston shared a video of himself on Twitter Wednesday evening addressing the student protest and responses to his letter. 

“I regret that the letter that I shared yesterday was not received by some in the way I intended,” he said.

The Blk Pwr Coalition is scheduled to host another demonstration Thursday.

This is a developing story.

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Noe Goldhaber

Noe Goldhaber is the college news editor and former copy chief for the Daily Cardinal. She is a statistics major and has reported on a wide range of campus issues. Follow her on Twitter at @noegoldhaber.


Gabriella Hartlaub

Gabriella Hartlaub is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. She also reports state politics and life & style stories. Follow her on Twitter at @gabihartlaub.


Ian Wilder

Ian Wilder is a senior staff writer and current men’s hockey beat reporter for The Daily Cardinal. He’s a former state politics and features reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.

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