The Freedom of Expression policy was recently passed for all schools in the University of Wisconsin system. The policy was approved by the Board of Regents at their meeting on Friday, Oct. 6.
For those unaware, the Freedom of Expression policy covers ramifications for student protesters on campuses. The policy states that students found disrupting an on-campus speaker two times over their academic career can be suspended for a semester. If they are found responsible for disruptive actions three times, they are eligible for expulsion from the UW system. The policy also states that “students and employees shall be permitted to assemble and engage in spontaneous expressive activity as long as such activity does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of an institution.”
Essentially, the aim of the policy is to allow protests, so long as the protests do not prevent audience members from listening to the person speaking. The policy defines actions that are “materially and substantially disrupting the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity” as actions that are grounds for punishment.
This policy, and its passage, has brought out controversy. Some people question the constitutionality of the policy, arguing that it goes against the first amendment. Others defend the policy, arguing that protesting students are the ones going against the first amendment by not allowing speakers to freely express their views. Stoutonia is currently conducting a poll to get information on what people thought of the policy.
One student wrote “I think the policy is very vague and could easily be abused. Along with the budget cuts and the extreme conservatism demonstrated by the Wisconsin State government, I’ll have a hard time recommending Stout to anyone for a long time.” While a UW-Stout faculty member wrote in and said, “Many people have misunderstood the policy’s conditions. It does not hold anyone back from disagreeing in the form of protesting… what it does do is protects speakers on campus from being shouted off stage, or their platform.”
At the Board of Regents meeting, Coltan Schoenike (they/them/theirs), a UW–Stout student and the director of communications affairs for the Stout Student Association (SSA), was allowed to speak. They expressed the SSA’s opposition to the policy, saying that the “policy is too vague” and that “vagueness is too large of a risk to take.” Schoenike also expressed that they felt the policy’s vagueness could lead to it being abused or neglected. They argued that the UW system does need a policy protecting free speech, but this one isn’t the one. A few regents also argued against the policy. One was regent Evers, who stated that we, the UW system, “already have policies that deal with [issues of improper behavior].” He also believes that the policy will suppress free speech on UW campuses.
Most of the regents on the board spoke in support of the policy. Regent Millner was one of many, and she said that she supported the policy because “I support the listeners.” She explained that the policy designed is to protect listeners, because everybody should have the opportunity to listen. Regent Jose Delgado spoke in the beginning, and he talked about his experience growing up in Cuba. He said free speech was limited there, and when he came to America, his eyes were opened to the ability to speak your mind. Even when he disagreed with what someone is saying, he said he tried to listen. Through this, he said, “I know that I grow, and my mind has changed on many, many topics. I have learned a lot.” He supports the policy because he believes in everyone’s right to listen.
Although four regents spoke against the policy, only one regent voted against its passage in the end. Despite the policy being passed by the board, it still has to be approved by Governor Walker. The policy will likely not go into effect for several more months.