Silencing protest in the name of free speech

November 8, 2017

Alex Buckingham reports on a draconian new policy announced by the University of Wisconsin that threatens to have a chilling effect on campus activism.

LAST MONTH, the University of Wisconsin (UW) Board of Regents passed a so-called Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression that is, in fact, the very opposite.

Instead of promoting the expression and exchange of ideas, this new policy is designed to suppress free speech--as least when it comes from the left. The statement reads in part:

The Board of Regents will pursue a change to the Wisconsin Administrative Code to include suspension as the sanction for students who have been twice found responsible and expulsion as the sanction for students who have been thrice found responsible for disrupting the expressive rights of others.

How will campus administrations define "disrupting the expressive rights of others"? This vague phrase could apply to picketing outside a lecture hall or organizing a walkout during a presentation--and there is every reason to believe that it will be selectively enforced.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) administration has targeted students in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with Palestine who campaigned for the student government to pass a resolution calling for the school to pull its investments from institutions profiting from Israeli apartheid.

Students march against racism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison
Students march against racism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison

In what may be a case of administrative retaliation, subpoenas for organizing material and correspondence regarding the BDS campaign have been issued.

Last year, UW police stormed into a class in session to make a spectacle of the arrest of Denzel McDonald for allegedly making anti-racist graffiti on the campus.

These examples show the kind of speech that the university doesn't care about protecting: protests that call out the UW's racism or complicity with U.S. imperialism. Nor is the administration working to protect the speech of graduate student employees, who have lost their bargaining rights.

Instead, the new policy is intended to shield right-wing speakers on campus from the students who challenge them. It's not a defense of free speech, but an assault on it--a shameful effort to hinder activists organizing around anti-imperialist, anti-racist, climate justice and LGBT issues from building struggle and resisting the growth of the right in the Trump era.

In fact, this anti-left policy didn't originate with the Board of Regents, but with the Republican-dominated Wisconsin State Assembly, which earlier this year passed a "free speech" bill calling for punitive action against students and campus workers who protest speakers on campus.

The resolution from the Board of Regents--almost all of whom are appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker--was intended as a statement of support for the bill as it passes on to the state Senate. Or, to be more precise, to show "a responsiveness to what's going on in the Capitol, which helps build relationships," as Board President John Robert Behling put it.

So much for academic freedom.

STUDENTS AT UW-Madison are not alone in facing an aggressive assault on their speech. Ohio University (OU) in Athens recently began to restrict protests to the most marginal parts of campus.

As Tyler Barton and Ryan Powers reported for, the OU policy "bans demonstrations, rallies, public speechmaking, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies' from taking place inside university buildings. Related revisions to the University's 'Use of Outdoor Space' policy place further restrictions at several sites that have been used for political demonstrations in recent years."

"While right-wing voices loudly demand an expansion of their right to free speech," concluded a recent editorial, "the left on campuses is seeing its rights constricted--a trend that has gone careening out of control since the election of Trump."

Professors and students active in anti-racist work know this best. Dana Cloud at Syracuse University, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton and many others have both been targeted by right-wing campaigns of harassment, hate mail and even death threats.

At UW-Madison, the new policy has sparked a contentious debate in the local media. The Badger Herald, for instance, published opposing editorials from the College Democrats and the College Republicans, in which the Republicans defended the policy by arguing that "free speech is at risk now more than ever. College campuses across the nation have seen countless speakers silenced due to the opinions they have held."

Opponents of the right see through their smears. In a NewsOne feature about the new anti-protest policy, UW student Savion Castro was quoted as saying, "When we see the hypocrisy from the same legislators demanding this rule change, but denouncing NFL players taking a knee, we see it's not about speech, but policing the protest of people of color that dare challenge the status quo."

It's important for campus activists to demonstrate to everyone on the UW campus that this anti-protest policy is not aiming to increase the exchange of ideas, but to suppress dissent on critically important issues like tuition hikes, racism in our community and the crisis of sexual violence on campus.

The Board of Regents' alleged concern for free speech is nothing more than a shield for its neoliberal agenda. The policy does not the defend free speech but limits our rights in the fight for a better school and a better world.

We need to oppose both the state bill and the Regents' policy--and bring together all the forces in the UW system opposed to limiting our right to protest.

Further Reading

From the archives