The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents decided on Oct. 6 to adopt a new policy that calls for the suspension of students “found responsible for disruption of freedom of expression” twice, and the expulsion of those found responsible three times.
Many are concerned about the definition of “disruption” in the policy’s terms. UW-Stout senior member of the Stout Student Association called the Board’s definition too vague, urging them to make it more specific. One concern is that this looseness opens the door to other issues, like race, to come into play. However, according to the website for the Board Regents, the policy is intended to be flexible because “no two disruptions are alike.” The definition allows each institution their own interpretation on a case-by-case basis.
UWM students expressed concerns as well. While McKenna Kopesky, junior, and Alexandra Schaefer, sophomore agreed that schools should take action when violent disruptions, both discussed what the policy could mean for students’ voices.
“You should be allowed to protest if you don’t like something about the school,” Schaefer said, adding that the policy would make more sense to her if it regarded only political protests on campus. “Otherwise how is it going to change?”
Kopesky, too, was perplexed by the policy.
“I feel like schools should not be the ones to suppress any type of protesting. If anything this is where you would think it’s most welcome to voice your opinion,” she said, adding, “What’s the point of having an opinion if we can’t take action?”
While on one hand, the policy appears to put student activism in danger, its objective, after all, is to ensure that these “disruptions” do not inhibit the expression of others’ voices.
The Board’s news release regarding the policy states that the goal is to “communicate the Board’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression, as well as set expectations for those who violate those freedoms.” UW System president, Ray Cross, expressed the Board’s obligation to ensure civility in the polarized society of today.
The new policy has received national attention, with many public figures and celebrities acknowledging it on Twitter. Comedian Sarah Silverman called it a “dangerous slippery slope.”
What makes this decision shocking to some is the UW System’s history of student activism. Milwaukee citizens, including students, protested in a variety of forms during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. UWM’s own Roberto Hernandez Center is named after the man who led sit-ins and protests in the early 1970s to establish campus resources for Spanish-speaking students. Milwaukee LGBTQ organizations protested when the raiding of gay bathhouses began in 1978. Even earlier this year Milwaukee organizations rallied supporting immigrants rights in defiance of policies advocated by President Trump and ex-Sheriff Clarke.
Although protest has long played an integral role in giving students a voice, the new policy specifically flags behavior that “disrupts” other’s free speech, likely referring to violent, disorderly conduct. While historically student protests have played integral roles in important movements, more recent instances of protests turned violent, make a case for the new policy.
The question at hand: What constitutes “disruption of freedom of expression?” Schaefer begged the question, “What is a peaceful disruption?”
“The First Amendment in supposed to be messy … The whole point of protest is to disrupt the status quo and make people uncomfortable,” said UW-Madison senior Savion Castro in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
While the policy aims to create a civil environment for conversation of college campuses, it might be considered it as an inhibitor of students’ freedom to express their beliefs through peaceful means to some. The First Amendment itself protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” and if a students’ attendance at a protest puts them in danger of being expelled, their ability to express themselves in this way are inhibited. Unless the Board changes the language around the term “disruption,” questions will continue to arise.