UW System free speech policy aims to give voice to all political views
Emily Longsdorf, a senior English major, said she feels free expressing her opinion on campus for the most part, but she has had problems with some professors in her classes.
“They teach with bias when it’s not necessary,” Longsdorf said. “Sometimes I keep my opinion to myself, because it’s usually met with rebuttal from my professor or classmates.”
Longsdorf said that the conservative perspective isn’t as accepted in her experience in the liberal arts department. She said her professors openly rebuke conservatives and the Trump administration, even when it doesn’t relate to class. She has been a member of the College Republicans since last year and has written a paper on liberal bias on college campuses.
There have also been physical examples, including last year when students around campus wrote in chalk supporting Trump’s election. People erased the writing and instead wrote “peace and love,” which Longsdorf took as them saying Trump was some sort of dictator.
“It’s allowing freedom of speech, but most people don’t want to hear about Trump or conservative issues,” she said.
This problem has become more violent and serious in other parts of the country, which led the UW System to implement a policy in October that penalizes violent protests on campuses and aims to allow for diverse viewpoints to be heard.
The protests against conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos at UC-Berkeley in February 2017 are one example. He had to cancel his appearance when protesters turned violent and wreaked havoc on the campus. Yiannopoulos has proved to be a controversial figure, but he did nothing wrong by simply appearing for a speaking engagement. Longsdorf said that the campus used to be at the forefront of free speech in the 1960s, but the current generation has changed the narrative to, “if you don’t follow our agenda, it’s wrong.”
Similar instances also occurred in the UW System, where it was reported that instances of conservative speakers being harassed or unable to give speeches became a problem across campuses nationwide last year. Ben Shapiro was a conservative commentator who had demonstrators interrupt his talk and form a line in front of him in 2016.
The protesters left minutes later, but this is one situation where the protests didn’t turn violent. With issues at Madison also rising, the UW System decided it was time to put a new policy in place.
The Board of Regents decided in October to create a policy to punish students on UW campuses who repeatedly disrupt campus speakers with opposing views. The policy requires a student twice found responsible for disrupting freedom of expression to be suspended and a student who disrupts three times to be expelled.
“Our obligation as a System is to ensure that different voices are heard and that civility prevails,” UW System President Ray Cross said in a statement.
Longsdorf said that she supports what the policy is trying to accomplish.
“I think if people want to protest, go for it,” she said. “I don’t think (protesting) is always necessary, but it should always be peaceful and respectful.”
This predominantly conservative problem may be viewed by some as one party pushing their views or restricting free speech. However, John Heppen, adviser for College Democrats and a Faculty Senate member at UWRF, disagrees with this general response. He said that he doesn’t really see it as restrictive, but instead maintains previous rights and aims to be fair to both sides.
He said that the policy is fine and is more explicit in allowing different viewpoints to be heard. Heppen added that there hasn’t really been much talk or worry about the policy affecting UWRF.
“I would say it hasn’t had much of an impact at all,” Heppen said. “This campus has always been open to diverse viewpoints.”
Heppen said that the political science department did a good job of putting on a discussion with both political viewpoints last fall before the election.
He added that he hasn’t personally encountered any discussion on the policy between his own students and his peers at other UW institutions since it was passed. The Faculty Senate at UWRF made a commitment to upholding free speech at the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year.
Faculty Senate chair Mialisa Moline said in a statement that, “While we must, to the best of our ability, not limit the free speech rights and the academic freedom rights of students, we must also sometimes regulate them so that they do not interfere with the rights of other students to learn.”
UWRF specifically prohibits harassment and violent or abusive behavior in what should be peaceful acts of free speech. This is the key behind the policy decision to subdue protesters at the system level. However, this can become difficult to specifically monitor or enforce, according to sophomore Jordan Kitchen.
“It’s easy to get complacent, because it seems like nothing has changed,” Kitchen said. “However, sometimes something small like that can lead to more rights being taken away … it’s always dangerous to start to enact legislation against people’s ability to have free speech.”
Kitchen agrees with the policy, but urged students to stay informed and aware of the topic. She is also the president of the College Democrats at UWRF and would like to see peaceful protests become more common on this campus.
“Protests allow you to meet people who are passionate about an issue and believe the same things,” Kitchen said. “Peaceful protests are such a great atmosphere for people to see that there are people who will stand up and fight against what’s going on.”
This ties into protests against Trump after he was elected president. Kitchen said that it was important for other countries to know that not everyone was a big Trump supporter and that not everyone believes a certain way. She added that everything ties into free speech and the fact that you can freely speak your own views and opinions.
While there was a large reaction to the news of the policy when it came out, it hasn’t seemed to become a burning issue at UWRF. However, the fact that most students don’t seem to be aware of the policy may be signs of a lack of politically informed citizens, according to Longsdorf.
“This generation needs to get out there and educate people,” she said. “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you should be telling people the honest truth about your nominees. Educating people and getting people to vote is very important.”