UW System’s freedom of expression policy, new campus organization’s activity spark controversy on campus
“I felt really nauseous.”
That’s how Ardin Fischer described their feelings when reading comments written on a large piece of paper that students had written on, an activity facilitated by the Young Americans for Liberty in the University Center.
“Some of the stuff I saw was a little disturbing. A little concerning,” Fischer said. “I saw the N-word on there.”
Elijah Anderson, vice president of YAL, said that there were no racial slurs on the large piece of paper and that the goal of the activity was to raise awareness about the newly established student organization and to get students to be more open minded.
“The hypothetical ideal goal would be to tell people that just because you have a different opinion from someone else doesn’t mean you have to shit on them and keep them from having that opinion,” Anderson said.
Freedom of speech has been a hot topic around UW campuses recently.
The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System published a draft of their “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression” regent policy document on Sept. 25.
The policy outlines new guidelines for handling student conduct regarding free speech and expression on UW System campuses.
New policies require compliance by the universities, leaving work to be done for administrators like Gregg Heinselman, assistant chancellor for student affairs at UWRF.
The administration must decide what does and what does not violate the policy. This means drawing a line to determine what is and isn’t considered hate speech.
“We want to air on the side of open, free debate but we don’t necessarily want freedom to be exploited. So where is that line? It’s an interesting judgement place and we’ve got to figure that out,” Heinselman said. “We will use our campus mission and values to determine that. I think we have a very good core position on that because of our mission and values but that doesn’t mean that every student within the community embraces and supports that mission and values.”
When breaking down the policy, Heinselman said he tries to think about what the first amendment means on a college campus and the history of student unions.
Heinselman said that the purpose of a student union, like the University Center, was originally for the interaction of students and the exchange of ideas. They were started as debate societies on college campuses where students could debate about what was going on in the world at any time.
“We are a forum of expression,” he said. “That’s what public education is about. Our campus is a state university. Most spaces on campus, all spaces on campus, should be safe. Most spaces on campus should be an open forum of expression.”
Students may not always feel like all spaces on campus are safe. According to Heinselman, there has been an increase in bias incident reports coming in this year compared to in the past, and a lot of them are classroom related.
Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Martin Olague has been in his position at UWRF since spring 2017. The responsibility of the intake of bias reports was passed on to Olague from Hienselman when Olague took the position. Olague said he isn’t sure that the number of bias incident reports has gone up, but that the reports that are coming in are more intense.
“I think students are being bolder with their comments because it’s okay to do so, you know? That that’s been the message that’s been sent at the national level I think and I think students are just being bolder with it,” Heinselman said.
Heinselman believes that as a community we have lost the ability to understand how to debate an issue without attacking the individual. Olague would also like to see that change.
“In that free speech, are you going to have productive dialogue or are you going to just attack someone just based off on identity? I think that’s kind of where these things get murky. But hopefully as an office we can push that conversation,” Olague said.
Heinselman said campus is going to take some time to adjust to the new policy and it will be interesting to see how a new student organization like YAL is going to blend into that at some level.
“It’ll be interesting to track that and see how it does on campus,” he said.
Fischer is open to the idea of debate but believes the paper activity gave people a chance to hide behind anonymity.
They took the opportunity to write their own message.
“Free speech is great and all but your free speech will have consequences depending on what you’re saying,” Fischer said. “You have the ability to affect people with your voice and I think that’s something a lot of people don’t really understand when they say they want free speech.”
Anderson said YAL wants the paper debate similar to a Reddit feed and everyone should feel free to express their opinions freely when the group does the activity again in a week or so.
The group knows that some things that students write may be considered offensive to others.
“That’s going to happen, you know,” Anderson said. “If I say fiscal conservativism is the best way to manage government, some people are going to get offended by that, but just because you’re offended does that automatically render it hate speech? Not according to the definition of hate speech, at least in a legal code.”
Hate speech is defined as “speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.”
“Personally, I think getting offended is great because automatically, to me, getting offended is kind of shocking the established quo in your brain,” he said. “Kind of forcing you to acknowledge this reality you had previously, either A, thought was impossible, or B, thought was so outrageous that you couldn’t even consider it or think about it.”
YAL wants the board to be an ongoing discussion. The same people can come back and add to their old ideas.
“Words are words,” Anderson said. “They’re not actions. There’s a difference.”