UW Student: For True Academic Freedom, the Time is Now

March 13, 2017

By Jessica Murphy
MacIver Institute Research Intern,
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Class of 2017

The fight for free speech on college campuses has never been more important than now, with liberals dead set on silencing speech that doesn’t align with their values. Protesters shout, chant, and even get physically aggressive with the goal of disrupting or cancelling conservative and libertarian leaning events. Most recently, students at Middlebury College shouted down speaker Dr. Charles Murray and violently attacked Murray and a professor as they were leaving campus. University administrators, generally under pressure from triggered students, sometimes deny speakers (often conservative) from accessing their venue. Before Ben Shapiro came to UW Madison in November, he was barred from speaking at DePaul University and their administration went so far as to threaten to arrest him. UW system administration, on the other hand, has made strides in protecting free speech.

The UW Board of Regents adopted their own version of the University of Chicago principles of free speech in 2015 and reaffirmed them in 2016. These principles embody the First Amendment and the notions of free expression and a free academia. So far these hAcademic Freedom PullQuote.pngave only been empty promises. Despite their legal obligation to provide for the students, the Board of Regents has not enforced policy changes to be made at the university level. While the sentiment of the Chicago Principles is important to embody, it is vital to push for change at the level that will directly affect the students.

Governor Walker plans to do more than simply pay lip service to the UW students, as we see in his next biennial budget. The Governor emphasizes his dedication to academic freedom by allocating $10,000 to the UW System in fiscal year 2018 to provide “funding…to review and revise policies related to academic freedom”. This provision upholds the principles of free speech in a powerful way.

This emphasis on fighting for free speech at the UW System comes at an opportune time, as student organizations such as Young Americans for Liberty have been promoting free speech activism on UW campuses for years. What many students at the UW campuses don’t know is that there are campus policies that are rated as unconstitutional by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) – a nonprofit organization that defends individual rights on college campuses.

FIRE uses a traffic light system to rank schools and specific university policies as either green, yellow, or red. Their website explains that a green light ranking “means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus,” a yellow light ranking indicates “policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression,” and a red light ranking means there is “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Of the eight UW schools listed on the FIRE website, five are ranked yellow, one is ranked red, and two are not yet rated (UW-Superior and UW-Whitewater). UW-Green Bay, UW-La Crosse, and UW-Stout all ranked red in the 2014-15 academic year and updated policies to earn a yellow rating the following academic year.

UW FIRE Ratings.pngUW-Oshkosh is the only red-light school in the UW System. They impose three explicitly unconstitutional policies relating to inclusivity and diversity, harassment, and tolerance. One school policy goes so far as to say it is every student’s “right to expect…an environment that is free of insulting and demeaning comments…based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, military status, socioeconomic status, family status, or political views”. It is insulting that the UW-Oshkosh administration is attempting to censor the voices of almost 14,000 students to avoid hurt feelings. How do they expect their students to learn, develop critical thinking skills, or strike out on their own if they are constantly silenced and sheltered?

All universities in the UW System enforce a myriad of unconstitutional policies. Some of these policies include the Systemwide Conduct on University Lands (yellow rating), applicable to all campuses in the UW System. This policy vaguely states that an individual may not “annoy or offend another person”. Another vague policy in place at UW-Green Bay states that students “may be sanctioned if behavior…tends to provoke an immediate violent response” (yellow rating), which implies that an individual should be held accountable over another’s actions. It continues that administration will “not tolerate behavior aimed at discriminating, degrading or hurting people- whether physical, emotional, or indirect (notes, signs, gestures).” To read more unconstitutional policies at Wisconsin universities, check out FIRE’s website.

UW administrators in charge of the policy revision should collaborate with FIRE, which offers free consultations and policy suggestions. I am optimistic that if Governor Walker’s commitment to academic freedom is passed in the biennial budget, university campuses in Wisconsin will once again become a haven for open intellectual discourse. Wisconsin’s fight for free speech on college campuses will have a ripple effect throughout the entire state, and will set an example for other publicly-funded universities across the country.