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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Differences in free speech for UW-Madison campus members, explained

The boundaries of free speech are an ever-present issue at college campuses, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison is no exception.

The boundaries of free speech are an ever-present issue at college campuses, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison is no exception. 

Recently, students and faculty have raised questions around free speech at UW-Madison in the wake of an increase in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on campus following the outbreak of war in Gaza. 

At UW-Madison, free speech is governed by both the First Amendment — owing to the school’s status as a public institution — and Wisconsin Administrative Code Chapter UWS 17. Board of Regents Policy 4-21 states that UWS 17 applies to all individuals within the UW System, including students, employees and visitors. 

However, some incidents have had critics question whether varying standards of free speech are used. 

Here are four different standards for free speech procedures used on UW System campuses.


UW-Madison policy UW-875 emphasizes the rights students have to free speech, assembly, petition and association. That extends to student organizations as well. 

“Students and student organizations may examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and express opinions publicly as well as privately. They may support causes by lawful means which do not disrupt the operations of the university or of organizations accorded the use of university facilities,” the policy states. 

But the limits of student free speech have been a hot-button issue for the UW System at large. A February 2023 free speech survey indicated conservative students feel more discomfort expressing classroom opinions, something that’s contributed to broad state investments in UW System free speech initiatives and a sticking point of criticism for conservative leaders.

Meanwhile, in May 2023, a UW-Madison student said racial slurs and violent remarks toward Black people in a viral video, igniting nationwide discourse on the boundaries between free speech and hate speech within campus communities.

Despite condemnation and calls for expulsion by tens of thousands of people, school administrators said they were bound by the First Amendment. At the time, UW-Madison said in a press release that the school can’t limit what students and employees post to personal social media accounts, provided the posts are not unlawful.

Questions around permitted speech — particularly in guidelines for protests — have persisted since.

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Staff members 

Although university administrators and employees have the right to free speech with students, there are legal limitations that must be taken into consideration. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that statements made by public employees during the course of their official duties are not protected by the First Amendment and may result in disciplinary action from their employer. 

However, UW System employees retain First Amendment protections when making statements as private citizens, provided they avoid implying their opinions represent those of the university.

UW Policy 882 sets guidelines for all UW-Madison staff members. The policy specifically deals with “protected and unprotected expression in non-instructional but work-related settings.” 

According to the policy, expression is considered protected if it involves presenting or discussing material that is suitable for non-instructional work-related activities. However, using derogatory or debasing expressions or comments directed at a particular student, university employee or service recipient based on protected characteristics, like gender, race or religion, is deemed inappropriate and falls outside the realm of protected expression.

Faculty members 

Under UW-882, faculty members — professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors in academic departments or academic staff designated by an institution's chancellor or faculty — have the right to express their opinions freely under the umbrella of academic freedom of speech. However, they are expected to adhere to the standards of free speech that apply in an educational setting. 

The policy says instructors at UW-Madison are entitled to academic freedom, which allows them discretion to conduct research, publish findings and engage in open classroom discussions, especially when discussing topics relevant to the courses they teach. 

Even if speech is permitted, professors can still land in hot water from the university community. UW-Madison education professor Sara Goldrick-Rab sparked controversy in 2015 after posting a tweet that read “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between [former Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker and Hitler. There are so many — it’s terrifying.” 

At that time, a the Office of the Secretary of the Faculty refrained from taking action, even after issuing a statement that said those on the committee found Goldrick-Rab’s dialogue around the intersection of politics and our university’s future disgusting and repulsive.”


Although a separate standard for chancellors — who are protected under general UW System freedom of expression policy — doesn’t exist, the specific role of chancellors can create complications.  

An example is Joe Gow, the former UW-La Crosse chancellor fired in December 2023 for creating pornographic videos with his wife. Gow defended the videos as part of his free expression rights.

UW System President Jay Rothman maintained the actions caused “significant reputational harm” for UW-La Crosse. Gow, who had been set to retire in January, had his status as a tenured faculty member put under review.  

Gow, who told outlets in January he was weighing legal action, entered the chancellorship via a 2006 contract which specified he “may not engage in any activity that may be adverse to, or competitive or inconsistent with the interests of the University of Wisconsin System,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

Owing to his representative role as a chancellor, some experts have argued firing him from the chancellorship is an easier argument to swallow than removing his tenured position, according to Channel 3000.

The UW System was bound by open meetings law in Wis. Stat 19.85, which allows the investigation of charges against a person. Gow claimed his due process rights were violated in not being contacted by the UW System before his disposition. 

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