Many of us have been warning for years about the anti-free speech activities of various protest groups in barring speakers and even taking over classrooms. I have long advocated suspending students who prevent others from speaking or attending such events and expelling those who are repeat offenders. Now the University of Wisconsin system has adopted such an approach, though some of the terminology is problematic in my view. Nevertheless, while the policy (found here) could be more specific in defining terms like “disrupt,” it is a move that could go a long way in restoring free speech protections.
The Board of Regents adopted a policy which states that students found to have twice engaged in violence or other disorderly conduct that disrupts others’ free speech would be suspended. Students found to have disrupted others’ free expression three times would be expelled.
Wisconsin System President Ray Cross announced that “Perhaps the most important thing we can do as a university is to teach students how to engage and listen to those with whom they differ.” Amen.
The alternative can be seen at places like Berkeley where students silence speakers and even teachers who hold opposing views. As recently discussed, even University President have been barred from speaking by students and professors have been blocked from giving tests or even teaching their classes. Universities like Northwestern have allowed students to disrupt classes without apparent discipline.
State public schools Superintendent Tony Evers was the only negative vote. Evers accused the regents of denying free speech. In fairness to Evers, I think that the policy could be more specific on key terms when it proscribes conduct that “materially and substantially disrupt the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.” Vague terms can themselves be inimical to free speech. Clearly students should be able to protest and those protests can be “disruptive” in the sense that their size or volume can impact an event. However, the proscribed conduct should focus on actively barring doors or entering rooms to prevent speakers from being heard. For that reason, I would not favor this draft of the policy but I also believe that this type of policy is needed on campuses through the country.
I am equally concerned by language like the following:
The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not mean that members of the university community may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. Consistent with longstanding practice informed by law, institutions within the System may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or discriminatory harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university.
Again, it is not clear what is “otherwise directly incompatible with the function of the university” — an expression that could be read quite broadly. The policy does state:
These freedoms include the right to speak and write as a member of the university community or as a private citizen without institutional discipline or restraint, on scholarly matters, or on matters of public concern.
Those protections need to be more robustly and concretely stated in my view.
Since the policy has to be accompanied by regulations or administrative procedures for implementation, I am hoping that the system will add needed clarity to protect the speech rights of protesters. There is a understandable need to adopt more general language in policies but free speech demands clarity when it comes to potential discipline for expressive conduct. That can be accomplished with narrowing language and focuses on violent conduct as well action taken to prevent access to events or misconduct within events. It can also clarify that disruptions do not include protests outside of events (the specific room or venue of a speech for example) so long as those protests are not violent and do not seeking to bar access to the event.
What is clear is that the current rules are fostering a “heckler’s veto” that is fundamentally at odds with the values of high education. Schools need to be more proactive and frankly principled in telling students that efforts to prevent people from speaking or being heard will not be tolerated and could ultimately lead to their suspension or expulsion.
What do you think?