In the latest postcard from the edge of eroding constitutional rights, protesting could mean suspension and expulsion for students at the University of Wisconsin; but, this draconian move — adopted unironically in the name of free speech — may soon also be law statewide.
“The Board of Regents adopted the language on a voice vote during a meeting at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie,” reports the Associated Press. “The policy 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.”
Beyond the Freedom Is Slavery, Orwellian justification for the university’s new protest expulsion policy, its overly broad terminology leaves open to interpretation by potential accusers and disciplinarians, alike, what qualifies as behavior that “materially and substantially” disrupts an event.
Again, the policy mirrors legislation worming its way through the Wisconsin Legislature — threatening the rights of anyone with an opinion or a grievance and the will to demonstrate because of it.
“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,” University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross told the school’s Board of Regents. “If we don’t show students how to do this, who will? Without civil discourse and a willingness to listen and engage with different voices, all we are doing is reinforcing our existing values.”
Citing the need to provide equivalent platforms for speakers from all viewpoints — including any who tout generally contentious ideologies — the regents voted to codify punishment for disruptive protest in an effort to crack down on shouting intended to drown out, and ultimately stifle, controversial speakers.
In June, the Wisconsin Assembly passed legislation upon which the school’s was modeled, and — although the Senate has yet to act on the matter — Republican lawmakers appear poised and eager to ensure its passage.
Governor Scott Walker, in fact, appointed sixteen of the Board of Regent’s eighteen members, AP explains, as “[s]tate public schools Superintendent Tony Evers and Wisconsin Technical College System Board President Mark Tyler are automatically regents by virtue of their offices.”
Evers cast the solitary vote in opposition to the authoritarian proposal, warning, “This policy will chill and suppress free speech on this campus and all campuses.”
Universities and colleges have long been considered bastions for and valiant defenders of free speech; but, vitriol between the deeply polarized political left and right since the election of Donald Trump has already fomented into violent clashes — the worst of which resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, after James Alex Fields, Jr., sped his vehicle straight into a crowd of demonstrators.
Self-declared members of the alt-right, white nationalists, white supremacists, Trump supporters, and the like-minded had gathered in the storied seat of the University of Virginia for a Unite the Right rally, organized under the auspices of flexing the group’s rights to free speech. Counter-demonstrators arrived in droves to vocally condemn what was widely viewed as a publicity stunt to curry favor for untenable ideas.
Tiki-torch-bearing attendees, some sporting white polo shirts, khakis, and ubiquitous red ‘Make America Great Again’ hats marched across campus, shouting such phrases as “Jews will not replace us” — the entire gathering an obvious provocation to conflict, as well as an echo-chamber, PR exploit.
And that was only one weekend — speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos, whose sole agenda seems to center around controversy and how to fan it, have sparked violent rioting on campuses like Berkeley, where opposition felt the former Breitbart editor’s message of intolerance should not be welcomed with open arms.
Of course, calls from the right to champion free speech both dismiss and deflect from the parallel right to protest against what’s being said — and the Wisconsin regents’ decision to adopt the new expulsion-consequent protest policy in actuality serves neither side.
According to the alt-right, free speech is not only under attack, it’s an endangered concept in need of immediate rescue — but the problem is, the study most cited by the loudest right-wing figures, has several fatal flaws. Sophia A. McClennen writes for Salon,
“The study cited in The Washington Post and tweeted by [CNN’s Jake] Tapper claims that 20 percent of college students believe it is appropriate to use violence to shut down hateful or offensive speakers. But here’s the catch. The study was funded by the right wing, ideologue, billionaire Koch brothers and conducted by a UCLA professor with absolutely no polling experience of any kind.
“John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering, argued that his survey offered important data on the troubling atmosphere on American campuses, where ‘freedom of expression is deeply imperiled.’”
Further, “The Guardian … reported that there were serious concerns over the polling methods used by Villasenor. Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Polling, which sets ethical and transparency standards for polling, called the study ‘malpractice’ and ‘junk science’ and claimed that ‘it should never have appeared in the press.’ The Guardian further pointed out that asking students about violence and speech in late August, in the days immediately after neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched through the university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, leading to the murder of one young woman, was guaranteed to skew results.”
So, if exercising one’s constitutional right to free speech isn’t at all under threat, what were the University of Wisconsin regents — and state legislators — actually hoping to accomplish in approving such heavy-handedness against protests?
While the stuff of pure conjecture, it could be easily surmised increasing college clampdowns on protest represent a return to hard and soft censorship unparalleled since the McCarthy Era — where the right might claim easy victory, the rules apply across the board. To every corner of the political spectrum.
Regent Regina Millner, according to The Root, defended the board’s vote under the guise it promotes ‘listening’ — but that would generally indicate the presence of an audience to hear. And that might not be too appealing an option for students whose debt burden could surpass them in years.
Make no mistake — that universities and other institutions of higher learning have jumped in the free speech fray with the punitive equivalent to Thor’s hammer, is a weighty domino of many constitutional dominoes toppled in the dystopian name of free speech. As Democratic state Representative Chris Taylor critically lamented,
“Who’s going to show up to a protest if they think they could be potentially expelled?”