UW Protest Crackdown May Put Free Expression in a Deep Freeze

Story Date: 
Oct 25, 2017

On Friday, October 6th, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System voted overwhelmingly to approve a policy allowing for the suspension and expulsion of student protesters who “interfere with” speaking events.

The Regents disguised this crackdown on student protest as an effort to protect freedom of expression, when in fact it threatens to have (and may already be having) the opposite effect – chilling speech and silencing dissent.

The policy starts from the premise that the rights of speakers on campus are threatened – a premise that does not apply at UW campuses, where many controversial speakers on various topics have spoken without significant incident. The policy, and a nearly identical bill currently being considered in the state legislature, were ostensibly brought on by a protest of a Ben Shapiro talk at UW in November last year.

Since that protest is often used by proponents of this campus speech crackdown as evidence for the Policy’s necessity, it’s worthwhile to clarify what exactly happened at that talk. Organizers of the protest contacted the UW Police Department, and “established boundaries of what they could and couldn’t do, such as using megaphones or surrounding attendees.” They then conducted their pre-approved protest for between 10 and 20 minutes, before leaving as requested. The event reportedly continued without further interruption.

Anyone who would suggest that what those students did is a reason to mandate expulsion for future protesters should never be taken seriously as a champion of free expression. While protesters made attendees of the event uneasy, they hadn’t violated any rules according to UWPD, and voluntarily left after a few minutes. As the Supreme Court said nearly 70 years ago in Terminiello v. Chicago, “the core function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute.” Are we seriously to believe that the discomfort of people attending a speech justifies a mandated expulsion policy for those opposing the speaker’s message and an orientation program on “free expression”?

Even if the policy does not directly prohibit permitted protest activity, it and the orientation will likely have a chilling effect on free speech, signs of which I have already seen firsthand.

Since the vote by the Board of Regents, I monitored a protest of a speaking event. Although the organizers of the event had been in contact with UW administration and UWPD for some time, after the vote, they reached out to me with concerns about how the Board of Regents decision would impact their rally. Multiple people said that they felt the need to be especially cautious in the wake of that policy. I suspect that this was the true aim of the resolution: to deter and quash student dissent.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the “worst” of campus protests is yet to come. Perhaps a group of overzealous activists will try to shut down any event that isn’t expressly Maoist in character. Will this policy be adequate in securing the rights of expression for all on campus – including the protesters, the speaker and sponsoring student group? Not by a long shot.

The language of the policy would penalize students found responsible for disrupting the expressive rights of others, but the term “disrupt” is never clearly defined.  

The Policy’s vague and overbroad language means the student body will be forced to second guess all of their political expression. If a student has to decide between speaking out during a Q&A and expulsion, the student will almost certainly pick self-censorship. I would. Even if asking a controversial question is permitted under the Policy (it’s unclear as currently formulated), why risk expulsion?

Even if we assume that the Board of Regents went in intent on protecting free expression on campus, we should still be alarmed by the implicit assumption that only the expression of speakers is worth protecting. Either through ignorance, malice, or both, they decided that the chilling effect of their policy on protesters was acceptable.

It isn’t. Campus activism matters, and is entitled to robust legal and academic protection. The Board of Regents should reverse their decision immediately, UW Administration should voice their solidarity with all elements of the student body, and the state legislature should abandon their version of the “Campus Speech Bill.” In the meantime, the rest of us need to be ready to come to the defense of any member of our community that university officials attempt to use this misguided policy against.

 

Shaadie Ali is a senior at UW-Madison, and he serves on the statewide board of directors of the ACLU of Wisconsin.