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Thursday, May 23, 2024
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The new bill would require Wisconsin colleges and universities to implement more severe punishments on those who violate free speech guidelines on college campuses.

Free speech debates persist across campuses. Wisconsin leaders struggle with solutions

Debates on UW campuses over belonging, free expression, and social and political identity have been raised more frequently in recent months as legislative Republicans seek to fund free speech programs and cut diversity initiatives.

University of Wisconsin System campuses have seen continued debates over belonging, free expression, and social and political identity in recent months as Republican lawmakers seek to fund free speech programs. 

Republicans have largely concentrated on how conservative students choose to self-censor opinions that are perceived as unpopular or controversial in academic settings. 

At the same time, many marganlized students say they feel unsafe on UW campuses due to frequent hate speech incidents, raising questions of whether choosing to self-censor and facing formal limitations on free speech are not the same.

A pair of Republican lawmakers introduced a proposal in January to allocate $500,000 annually toward the UW System’s Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue (WICCD), an office created in 2022 focusing on free speech programming and viewpoint diversity on college campuses.

Rep. Scott Johnson, R-Jefferson, and Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, presented the bill in a hearing for the Committee on Colleges and University earlier this month, arguing the office has not been adequately funded by the UW System. Over $250,000 in funding was allocated to the institute in its first year.

“Funding would support educational workshops, public events and activities, faculty and student research, and professional development, among other things. It would also allow the Institute to serve as a clearinghouse for best practices and curriculum development,” Mark Pitsch, UW System director for media relations, told The Daily Cardinal over email.

WICCD was created by UW System President Jay Rothman in response to a November 2022 free speech survey that found students’ perceptions of free speech rights differed greatly by political affiliation.

Most students surveyed said they expressed their unfiltered views on a “controversial topic” in the classroom because they knew enough about the topic, cared about the topic or were encouraged to speak on it.

However, the report noted a significant difference in students’ perceptions of how welcome their opinions are in the classroom. More than 64% of conservative students reported feeling pressure to censor their speech or conform to a professor’s viewpoints, compared to only 20% of liberal students.

“The premise here is to develop, on each campus, opportunities for diverse student commentary, and for students to feel comfortable with their commentary,” Johnson said.

Only 10% of students reported experiencing social consequences for speaking up about a topic. The nature of these consequences was not explored at the time.

Timothy Sheil, a professor of English, philosophy and communication studies at UW-Stout who helped initiate the survey, told the Cardinal in June the trend of conservative self-censorship is found across most surveys. 

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“The further right, the more trends showed up — feeling like they would self-censor more, feeling like they might be being pressured to a point of view by the professor,” he said.

Can the institute address student self-censorship?

WICCD’s goals are to encourage viewpoint diversity, promote freedom of expression, protect academic freedom and increase civic participation in universities and communities, Johnson said.  

Thomas Pyle, College Republicans of UW-Madison chair, told the Cardinal he and his friends do not often express their opinions in school papers.

“I’ve been able to talk to my friends about this, and they often feel the need to express different opinions on their papers, not say what they’re actually thinking in class because of fear that the professor will judge them differently,” he said. 

When asked whether professors have stopped conservative students from taking a certain stance or opinion in class, Pyle said, “I wouldn’t say they’ve been stopped for their political views, but they’ve definitely been challenged.”

Former UW-Madison political science professor and constitutional law expert Howard Schweber said greater self-censorship does not always indicate limitations on First Amendment rights. He drew a distinction between a right to free speech and a right to feel “welcome”.

“The idea of a free speech right to feel ‘welcome’ is brand new, a recent invention by political conservatives looking for a justification for interfering in the operations of institutions of higher education,” Schweber told the Cardinal. “A law that dictates whom you must make feel ‘welcome’ in your company would be both unconstitutional and bizarre.”

University leaders are unequipped, sources say

University officials have struggled to confront the emotional impacts unrestricted speech, including offensive or hate speech, can have on students while still upholding legal principles central to the First Amendment.

Behavior that includes targeted harassment and threats made against other students is not protected under the First Amendment. However, Schweber said most other restrictions on speech by public universities amount to government censorship, violating the U.S. Constitution.

Schweber said difficulty handling issues concerning free speech is a result of leaders receiving no formal training on First Amendment issues as part of their jobs. 

“The problem here is that neither students nor faculty nor administrators receive basic instruction in free speech and academic freedom principles,” Schweber said. “The fact that state legislators sometimes seem to be equally unaware of these basic principles is a whole different topic of conversation.”

One key criticism of the university’s free speech policy is that it fails minority populations — especially students of color — who say they do not feel safe or listened to on campus. 

“How can we start improving the campus if we are not listening to the campus?” Associated Students of Madison (ASM) Chair Kevin Jacobson said at a meeting with university leaders last fall.

The fight over racial equity and free speech on campuses has been brought to the forefront as Republicans nationwide work to limit or eradicate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices in public universities.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, negotiated a controversial deal with the UW Board of Regents in December requiring the UW System to cap new DEI position hires for three years and restructure one-third of DEI positions in exchange for employee pay raises and building projects funding.

Additionally, an unprecedented nationwide rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents following the Israel-Hamas war coupled with instances of discriminatory and hate speech in Madison has left many students wondering when — and how — the university can take action against harmful or violent speech on campus. 

Conversation and debate over the issue intensified last May, when a video of a white UW-Madison student saying violent racial slurs drew widespread condemnation from campus and community leaders.

Thousands of students signed a petition and hundreds protested in Bascom Hall demanding the student’s expulsion, despite the fact that university leaders said they could not legally expel the student.

“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,” UW-Madison Deputy Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion LaVar Charleston said at the time.

Students can file a bias incident report to a free speech committee run by the UW Board of Regents, according to UW System policy. Determining whether conduct crosses a line to constituting threats or harassment is done on a case-by-case basis by university officials.

“Through civil dialogue initiatives our universities are undertaking, we believe we can foster engagement and inclusion while preserving free speech rights,” Pitsch said.

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