UW System votes for free expression mandate

THOMAS BEYER-BOWDEN  | beyer015@rangers.uwp.edu

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents has voted in favor of a new policy, titled the Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression policy, that deals with free speech and protest on all UW campuses. This new policy will bring about several changes that include codifying the current practice of not allowing a university to compel students or employees to take certain positions on public policy issues, requiring an explanation of the free speech policy during freshman and transfer student orientation, and mandatory reports on the policy and disciplinary action against those who have violated it, prepared by the chancellor each semester for the Board of Regents to approve.

Changes happening

However, the largest and most controversial change to policy is the punishment for any student who “engaged in violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others.” This definition includes students who attempt to disrupt a campus speaker that they disagree with and comes after complaints by conservatives across the U.S. that right-leaning speakers are not afforded the same level of respect on campuses as liberal presenters. While chancellors were previously able to punish students who had disrupted free speech based on discretion, the new policy makes punishment mandatory. The punishment is currently a three strike system in which two violations of policy result in mandatory suspension and three violations result in expulsion.

This change only affects students. Faculty and staff are still protected by current university policy. UW-Madison issued a statement against the policy, stating that “the mandatory sanctions set out by the policy unnecessarily take away the discretion of a campus to impose sanctions appropriate to a student’s conduct in a given situation.” Others have also voiced concerns that the policy is an attempted crackdown on student activism and  that it unfairly punishes protest of speakers with controversial opinions and that “disruptive behavior” is not clearly defined.

Students are affected

The Board of Regents argued that the policy is a necessary step towards open discourse on campuses, saying that shouting down speakers is a violation of their free speech rights as well as students in attendance of the events. UW system President Ray Cross told the board of regents before the vote, “Perhaps the most important thing we can do as a university is to teach students how to engage and listen to those with whom they differ.” And the policy states the opinion of the drafters that it is not the role of the university to shield individuals from offensive ideas and opinions.

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