Wisconsin university panel endorses free speech

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Posted: Dec 10, 2015 5:59 PM

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A University of Wisconsin System regents committee unanimously approved a resolution Thursday affirming a commitment to free speech, following the lead of schools around the country that have faced protests over racial tensions and other social issues.

The regents' Education Committee approved the resolution after Chairman Gerald Whitburn recounted how he picketed George Wallace when the Alabama governor known for his segregationist polices appeared at UW-Oshkosh and how he watched protesters march in Madison when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

"There is a ripple in the air today suggesting it is a good and appropriate thing to reiterate and reaffirm our strong commitment to ... these principles and values," Whitburn said.

UW's resolution states that ideas on a university campus will naturally conflict but a school shouldn't shield people from remarks or concepts they might find offensive.

"Although the university greatly values civility, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community," the resolution states.

Regent Tim Higgins and faculty members have been developing the resolution since May, modeling it after similar resolutions from the University of Chicago and Purdue. Freedom of speech has grown into a contentious issue on college campuses across the country since then they began their work. Demonstrations over racial tensions, sexual misconduct and other social issues have fed concerns that free speech could be sacrificed in order to address student grievances.

In Columbia, Missouri, protesters angry over racial incidents on campus forced University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe to resign last month. An assistant professor aligned with protesters blocked a student photographer from the protesters' tent city and university police told students to report any hateful or hurtful speech they experienced, leaving the impression any comment considered offensive could be prosecuted as a crime.

Civil liberties supporters also have cited the use of "trigger warnings" to alert students about uncomfortable course content. Campus groups also have protested or cancelled appearances by speakers with contentious views, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

UW-Madison saw its own free speech mini-dispute last month. Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in her blog on Nov. 13, a day after UW students held a street protest to show support for black students at the University of Missouri, that no one is entitled to "express (their thoughts) in ways that diminish others, or that devalues the presence of anyone that is part of our Badger community."

Blank amended her remarks three days later to say she was trying to encourage civility and wasn't advocating for limiting free speech. But three UW-Madison professors — Donald Downs, John Sharpless and Mary Andersen — wrote a column on Nov. 30 saying Blank's remarks could inhibit the free exchange of ideas on campus and run contrary to First Amendment protections. They acknowledged that Blank was trying to head off racial confrontations like Missouri but said the "clash of ideas constitutes the heart and soul of what a university is."

"This wasn't supposed to be such a big deal," Higgins said. "Events have conspired to overtake the issue."

The resolution doesn't guarantee complete freedom of speech. It states the system can restrict threatening speech or speech that is "directly incompatible with the functioning of the university." Those exceptions can never be used in a way that's inconsistent with a commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas, the resolution states.

Downs, who helped draw up the resolution with Higgins, said that language mirrors the University of Chicago's resolution. He said the provision could be interpreted to mean no one can interfere with someone's speech but acknowledged it also could be construed as prohibiting criticism of the university. He said he wished the language had been clearer, but insisted it still protects free speech rights and will encourage an "intellectually honest" campus environment.

The full Board of Regents was expected to vote on the resolution Friday morning.