A new UW System policy is politically neutral and includes many positive statements about the UW System promoting and protecting freedom of speech, said Eric Kasper, associate professor of political science at UW-Eau Claire.
But it also has drawn controversy from people who say its punishments on those who disrupt free speech on campus could stifle protests.
The policy prohibits misconduct that “materially and substantially disrupts the free expression of others” — a phrase that Kasper could not find a legal definition for when he searched a database of appeals court cases.
“That — at least at this point — isn’t clear,” he said.
Discussions on campuses about the policy could help establish those details, he said. Or they could be borne out when universities put the policy into action and students who face penalties choose to challenge them in court.
The first alleged violation would result in a written report, committee hearing and potential sanctions, according to the “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression” adopted by the Regents on Oct. 6. But penalties ramp up for subsequent violations. A second offense results in a one-semester suspension and those found guilty of a third offense would be expelled.
While students found violating the policy for a first time won’t see much of a punishment, Kasper said the consequences of subsequent offenses could have a “chilling effect” on students who otherwise would want to engage in protests.
“For a lot of students, that’s not something they want to do — risk suspension or expulsion,” Kasper said.
About 85 people, primarily university students, attended Kasper’s 5 p.m. Wednesday presentation in a lecture hall inside Hibbard Hall on the UW-Eau Claire Campus.
Kasper, who serves as director of the university’s Center for Constitutional Studies, gave a 25-minute briefing on how freedom of speech applies to public universities before delving into the new UW System policy.
A Supreme Court decision from 40 years ago affirmed that freedom of speech granted by the U.S. Constitution applies to state governments as well, Kasper said.
“This applies to public universities with equal force,” he added.
In response to an audience question about the potential that the Board of Regents could revisit its policy to provide more clarity, Kasper responded that he doubts that would happen.
“They think they’ve done what they needed to do,” Kasper said, adding that working out the details now falls to the universities.
Kasper noted the Regents passed the policy in reaction to a similar push by the state Legislature. The campus free speech proposal was approved by the Assembly but has not yet been acted on by the Senate. And Kasper doubts it will go farther since the Regents’ action.
Freedom of speech on college campuses has become a hot button issue in the wake of several incidents where speakers faced opposition.
Kasper mentioned a speech that white nationalist Richard Spencer made last week that incurred large costs to provide security for the event at the University of Florida. The University of California, Berkeley, has had a string of conservative speakers that drew protests in recent months.
“Almost all of those speeches have been from a conservative viewpoint and almost all the protesters from a liberal viewpoint,” Kasper noted.
Opposition to conservative radio pundit Ben Shapiro’s lecture in November at UW-Madison also drew protests.
Differing ideologies pushed the matter of free speech on campuses to the forefront, but Kasper said the policy approved by the Regents is written to be politically neutral.
That appealed to freshman psychology major Jameson Rubenzer, who attended Kasper’s presentation.
“I think it’s a very neutral change,” he said.
However, Rubenzer added that specific details of the policy may be decided after it’s been employed by campuses.
“This is a policy I think can be fine-tuned after some incidents are reported and discussed,” he said.
But he doesn’t believe it will have a “chilling effect.”
“I think there’s enough leeway there to allow people to protest things they’re passionate about,” Rubenzer said.
Sophomore Michael Carini, a broadfield social studies major, also listened to Kasper’s presentation to learn about the new policy.
“I’m grateful I did attend,” he said.
Carini said the new policy is a good idea because it clearly defines freedom of speech on campus. He added that now is an opportune time to institute a policy out of fairness to speakers including Shapiro.
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