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Protests are intertwined with UW-Madison’s history. Some student groups say current protest policy is unreasonable

When a University of Wisconsin Police Department officer shoved a pro-Palestinian protester to the ground a month ago and detained another, many students and student organizations took to social media to voice their outrage.

Central to the discontent was UW-Madison protest policy, which aims to protect free speech while placing “reasonable” restrictions to ensure that protests do not “impede or disrupt the academic mission.” 

But disruption of the university’s academic mission isn’t always cut and dry, and “disruption of learning” itself is a term that Howard Schweber, a UW-Madison professor and first amendment expert, said is wholly subjective.

“Disruption to learning doesn't have a precise definition and is necessarily a judgment call,” he said. “One enormous question is whether one can find a disruption to learning based on feelings. So if students are made to feel afraid or offended, could that constitute a disruption to learning?”

Student organizations have also pounced on the wording of the protest policy, saying it is often antithetical to the ideals of protest.

Student group Anticolonial Scientists released a statement on Feb. 21 calling the current protest rules “unreasonable” and “fascist.” They also demanded all the citations and fines levied against the detained protester be dropped and for the “unconstitutional” protest rules to be immediately revoked. 

Mecha de UW-Madison, a Latine student organization, demanded UW-Madison remove protest guidelines that restrict free speech. They criticized a line in UW-Madison protest policy that states protesters can be penalized for “intentionally obstructing authorized activities,” which Mecha said is in fundamental conflict with protest principles.

The Associated Students of Madison Equity & Inclusion Committee also released a statement in support of the protestors. 

“Students have the right to peacefully protest without the threat of state violence,” ASM wrote. “UWPD violence at the peaceful protest on February 13th, 2024 was yet another example of state violence. The University must do better.”

What’s in the protest policy? 

UW-Madison protest policy outlines acceptable forms of on-campus protests. The policy allows for “spontaneous expressive activity,” but the activity cannot “disrupt the functioning” of the university. 

The rules were established by the UW Board of Regents and apply at all UW System campuses.

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Students who do not abide by these rules are subject to sanction and will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, according to a “Protest Dos and Don'ts” graphic in the policy. 

The policy focuses on events held inside of campus buildings and categorizes blocking the vision of others in any manner, such as with a sign, certain clothing, a prop or a person’s body as “likely disruptive” and therefore in violation of the policy. 

Other actions categorized as likely disruptive include the use of laser pointers, turning off lights in the room and setting off alarms on phones.

Schweber said many of the protest guidelines seemed reactive and not fully thought through.

“Rules are often made in response to some particular thing that's happened without enough thought being given to what else they might be applied to,” Schweber said.

Anuj Desai, a UW-Madison law professor and First Amendment expert, said the university ultimately gets to decide what is allowed to happen within the confines of university buildings. 

“The government is regulating its own property,” Desai said. “The government owns this building and is serving the role of both the educator trying to make sure that the university serves that educational purpose, but also to make sure the buildings serve their purpose.”

The university’s protest policy also includes strict restrictions on signs and noise amplification.

When the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) held a Valentine’s Day protest last month to advocate for paid leave, co-president Madeline Topf said they were told in advance that any signs they planned to bring would not be able to be mounted on sticks or standards.

Before the event, they were contacted by a member of UW-Madison’s protest support team. The protest response team is a group of senior campus administration officials under the Dean of Students office that is charged with the ability to “quickly assemble to evaluate on-going protests and demonstrations, provide guidance to campus staff facilitating specific campus events, and make necessary decisions regarding the event,” according to the protest guidelines.

During the February protest, the UWPD officer who pushed a protester down reportedly used this part of the policy as justification following the push. “You can’t come in,” he said. "There are no flags and sticks allowed inside the building.”

This sticks and standards policy specifically applies inside of campus buildings, according to Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison director of media relations and strategic communications. 

When demonstrations do occur outside, Desai said, some spaces have historically lent themselves more to protest.

“The university has just different spaces that are serving different purposes,” Desai said. “Library mall is obviously a university property, but it is a sanctified spot because it's treated like a public park.”

Additionally, Topf said the TAA was told they were allowed to give speeches but would not be allowed to use amplification, such as a megaphone, without a permit. At UW-Madison, a permit requires proving that the demonstration will yield 250 or more protesters and necessitate amplification. 

The policy also only grants permissions for sound amplification between 12-1:30 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. when amplification equipment is more than 50 feet from most academic buildings, according to the policy provided in an email from Kathy Kruse, associate dean of students.

Topf said these conversations about protest policy led to a lot of rethinking with the details of the TAA’s petition delivery demonstration. 

“I wanted to make sure that everybody would be safe,” she said. “I didn't want our event to be unintentionally breaking all these rules and people getting in trouble.”

This amplification aspect of the UW-Madison Protest Policy has drawn criticism from other student groups

“The university is involved in the harassment of these groups on campus, through its censorship (which includes limiting the location and sound of protests and pushback by UW administration against our events), police violence, and ‘investigations’ of SJP and other groups involved in work for the liberation of Palestinians and solidarity with them,” UW-Madison Students for Justice in Palestine said in a Feb. 26 Instagram statement.

Schweber said the sound amplification guidelines are arbitrary and focus on the wrong standard in the anticipated number of protestors. 

“Amplified sound doesn't become more or less disruptive depending on the number of people there,” Schweber said. “The problem is the standard in the number of people, and they should be focusing more on the volume.”

Changing tactics, reactions

UW-Madison is steeped in a rich history of protest. In the 1960s and 70s, UW-Madison removed protestors under the same language of interrupting the academic mission of the university, according to The University of Wisconsin: a History

In 1967, students protesting the on-campus recruitment for Dow Chemical, which supplied napalm to the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, were clubbed and tear gassed from Madison police, even when they were peacefully protesting during sit-ins.

Edward Friedman, who was a young political science professor at the time of these protests, said in a 2017 interview for the University of Wisconsin Oral History program that he was asked to stand witness to the conduct of police officers by a few of his students participating in the sit-in.

“There was a totally unnecessary use of force. Just beating, beating, beating people who were already running out,” Friedman said. “The sheriffs, when they hit the guys, they went after the gonads. And many of the girls back then wore mini skirts and they really did their best to lift up their mini skirts with their batons.”

Many other accounts focused on the violence they witnessed from the police officers and the resulting radicalization of students.

During UW-Madison’s Black Student Strike in 1969, state Rep. John C. Shabaz, R-Waukesha, introduced a bill to eliminate traditional tuition remission for out-of-state grad students with assistantships. This came as part of a larger conservative effort to reduce the number of out-of-state students at UW-Madison, whom they believed were to blame for the campus unrest. 

While the TAA already existed at this point, membership was low. The bill was the flashpoint that increased their membership to 970, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, and established the organization as the single bargaining unit for TAs.

When the TAA voted to strike in 1970, the university originally treated it as an illegal strike and broke off bargaining. The UW Board of Regents even took the TAA to court over the issue.

All of that history, however, circles back around to UW-Madison’s current protest policy and the notion of a “disruption of learning,” Schweber said.

“Historically, laws against things like disruption were used to crack down on labor unions,” Schweber said. “During the anti-labor period of the Supreme Court and federal courts, generally, courts would say things like, ‘Well this strike threatens to interfere with the relevant industry that's interfering with commerce, therefore, the strike is illegal.’ So there was a time when exactly that logic was used in sweeping ways to try and prevent the labor movement from getting going.”

In 1967, anti-military recruitment protests were met with violence. On March 24, 1970, the TAA president was arrested for blocking the entrance to Gordon Commons. And in 1970, the TAA strike was regarded as illegal. 

“The sheriff's deputies were out of control,” Friedman said of the 1967 protests. “It was the county police that rioted against the students, that was the actual event that occurred.” 

The violence against protesters from 1967 was preserved in photographs and oral accounts. But modern events, like the pushing of a pro-Palestine protester in February, were recorded on cell phones and spread very quickly through social media. 

Across the country, too, violence against protesters has been caught on camera time and time again and pressure has been exerted on both local and national governments to hold officers accountable. 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests were sparked by the killing George Floyd in Minneapolis, but throughout the movement, protests were often met with tear gas, riot gear and rubber bullets

Friedman said changes in policing have been crucial to the perception of protests today as much less volatile than those of the 1960s.

Still, TAA co-president Topf said her group’s mission to promote labor rights remains the same, even if it means navigating complex guidelines. 

“Going forward, the union will decide as a group what we need to do in order to have our voice heard and to get a response from the people who are making decisions,” Topf said. “We want to understand all of their rules so we know the risks that we're taking and make decisions based on that.”

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Annika Bereny

Annika Bereny is a Senior Staff Writer and the former Special Pages Editor for The Daily Cardinal. She has written in-depth for state and campus news. Follow her on Twitter at @annikabereny.

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