L ast Friday, the Wisconsin Board of Regents put a policy into place that calls for the expulsion of students who interrupt or protest campus speakers or presentations. Under the newly approved policy, students who have displayed disorderly conduct or obstructed the free speech of others on campus more than twice will be suspended. Those who have committed this offense more than three times will be removed from the school.
CASSIUS spoke to nine present and past University of Wisconsin-Madison students of color about the new policy.
L. Malik Anderson
“Nothing that occurs at this institution surprises me anymore. The university protects the liberties of those who express hatred, but refuse to allow members of the student body to engage in a true democratic process. When I first heard the ban was being discussed a while ago, I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t protect free speech.’ The speakers who come have a platform already. This is just another way to deny students with marginalized identities the right to speak up or defend themselves.
“I think the ban definitely places limitations for student movements. I also am certain that this ban will not be equal. I doubt protests centered around white students will have the same repercussions as protest centering Black and Brown voices. I’ve never placed my faith in this institution, ever. Instead, I believe in the people who use their position or their voices to advocate for themselves or others. I think it’s unfortunate that the University of Wisconsin has shown that it does not value student voices, especially people of color and queer voices, but this is not new information to these communities, it’s a reminder.”
“It’s our constitutional right to protest. This university only upholds the idea of free speech when it’s convenient. I could potentially be expelled as a person of color and activist on campus. I’m not going to stop what I’m doing because I know this ban is not right. This university holds the power to ruin our lives. It’s dangerous and will disproportionately affect students of color. But I’m still going to continue what I do. If there’s a white supremacist talking on campus, I have every right to let them know they’re not welcome here. If the school feels any other way, I’ll just have to take it up with a higher power.”
“I think as a TA, mentor, and friend my duty will be to counsel and advise students as they encounter changes they want to make on how to strategically go about making them. The Wisconsin idea is about innovation and producing culturally competent global citizens. If we cannot protest and highlight the ways in which this campus is lacking safety, equity, and tolerance how can we innovate? How will be producing global citizens? My plan is to be strategic, intentional, and patient.”
“When I first heard of the ban I thought to myself: this is censorship. This is another way that the university and the entire UW system has let down its students of marginalized backgrounds. The ban doesn’t make sense. The Board of Regents approved of a policy that limits a student’s right to protest, which is a part of free speech. Yes, everyone has a right to free speech, but at the same time, people also have a right to protest or express their disagreement with those opinions. I also feel that the Board of Regents is doing this to gain favor with certain politicians and donors. It’s important to recognize that fighting words are not protected under freedom of speech which some speakers and organizations have used on this campus. This policy is very vague about it and I don’t think it recognizes the law against fighting words. This will influence my life on campus because I might feel less inclined to attend a protest if the speaker or organization is using fighting words within their rhetoric because the ban is very vague.”
“While I think there’s going to be a lot of revision that needs to be made to this policy, I also feel like in a sense it does address a necessary need. It’ll be interesting to see what actions are going to be taken in line with the policy, but I have had friends who have tried to go to speaking engagements before and there have been issues that have arisen with people cussing out the speaker. What I hope to see is that people get their points across on both sides of the aisle and that everyone is given an opportunity to hear and speak what they feel. I think it defends the Wisconsin idea because it promotes a huge initiative for diversity across campus. I feel like when you’re choosing to consciously drown out one person’s voice in favor of another and deem one as one powerful, it’s against what the Wisconsin idea is all about. My biggest concern is how this is going to pan out when it comes to punishment. I know they said it’ll only be punishing violent or disorderly conduct, but it’s going to be hard to figure out what will fit into that bucket.”
“When I heard about the ban, my immediate thoughts were this: policing free speech is complicated. On college campuses we are taught to learn to ‘listen to both sides’ of an argument and engage in dialogue with those who we may not agree with. But in my experience with protesting or ‘causing a disruption,’ it’s always been when the person, group, or idea is hateful or violent. When people spread hate and messages that make individuals or groups of people feel unsafe, especially on college campuses, it’s dangerous. Not allowing students to speak out against these individuals impacts our free speech. I don’t think that speakers who come to campus should all come from one side of the same argument—I don’t find that productive. But speakers who incite hate shouldn’t be given a platform, and when we, as students, don’t stand for harmful messages, we shouldn’t have to fear suspension or expulsion for doing what we feel is right. What are the intentions behind this ban and who is it that you’re actually trying to silence? I’m curious how the implementation and enforcement of this new policy will be carried out because, as much as it’s about hearing both sides, the opposite might actually occur. You’re making students fear punishment for speaking out and standing up for ideas that they may learn about in the classroom, and adding the element of potential suspension or expulsion into how people talk about ideas learned in the classroom silences people from speaking up.”
“White supremacy is central to free speech today. Around the country, students are challenging the ideas of white supremacy promulgated by speakers such as Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, and others. This ban will signal that these purveyors of hate and white supremacy will find safe spaces at UW-Madison. Protest is meant to disrupt the status quo and challenge prevailing views— this ban takes that tool away. The regents are capitulating to a band of right-wing extremists that want white supremacy emboldened even more. It will be a tougher challenge for students of color to exist on this campus. UW-Madison has 664 black students out of 32,000 undergraduates. I have a tough time walking around campus and seeing that white conservatives don’t get enough speaking time. This protest ban is inherently undemocratic and I suspect unconstitutional. It criminalizes the speech of some in order to favor others. It will make this campus more unsafe for communities of color, making it harder to actualize the Wisconsin idea of reach for all communities throughout the state. We will continue to agitate for justice. This is part of a long tradition form white supremacy on policing the speech of Black protest. When we see the hypocrisy from the same legislators demanding this rule change but denouncing NFL players taking a knee, we see it’s not about speech, but policing the protest of people of color that dare challenge the status quo.”
“When the story first broke on my newsfeed, my immediate reaction was somewhere between unsurprised and being deeply unsettled. Unsurprised because UW’s definition of ‘freedom of speech’ is one that defends white football fans hanging our Black president in a noose, yet silences the voices of students of color peacefully demanding positive changes to the Board of Regents. I immediately thought of friends, familiar faces, myself, alumni, current students—actual people who I know this policy would have and will directly affect. They are teachers, organizers, engineers—Badger alumni of color doing amazing things who may not have graduated if this policy existed while they were still in school.
“While I unfortunately expected the Board of Regents to devise a free speech impeding policy after we attended their meetings and demanded they listen to our concerns in early 2016, I was disturbed to learn just to what extent they would be willing to violate our rights. This is yet another example of how the UW system and the Board of Regents vow to support diversity and inclusion, yet continue to assault the same diverse communities they claim to serve. Although it may not be explicit, this policy directly targets students of color and holds yet another barrier up to Black and Brown people’s access to a quality higher education and socioeconomic gain—and no, that’s not a stretch.
“If the university would do its job in properly training its faculty, hire more faculty of color, and condone hate speech instead of qualifying it as free speech among other things, students of color wouldn’t have to march and disrupt to feel as comfortable as their white counterparts on campus. It’s predominantly students of color that you see on the front lines and behind the scenes of the campus actions this policy targets, not white students. It’s the students of color who will be expelled, only to return to their communities with more loans and yet another barrier to a degree. Some of UW’s brightest minds are products of campus actions and disruptions, and the increase in actions should indicate an issue with the system, not the students. Simply put, now more than ever, it is time for White allies to stand up. Our liberation is tied together, and I can guarantee the Board of Regents won’t be able to support a policy that continuously expels white students. As an alumni, I will use my privilege to whatever extent I can to continue to apply pressure to the institution, combat the hate speech and White supremacy defended by UW’s interpretation of ‘free speech,’ and support my community or anyone affected by this policy. The Board of Regents’ refusal to listen to our demands of institutional change are a reflection of their deceptive commitment to inclusion and justice to the lands their institutions were built on, the labor they were built with, and the faces they Photoshop onto their pamphlets.”
“To protest is to exercise our First Amendment rights as students and citizens. For it to be taken away tells me this university doesn’t care about its people of color’s liberation or safety, and that it feels its Brown and Black students should not speak up when something is terribly wrong. To bring white nationalist supporters to school to lecture on divisive ideologies is the exact opposite of what this campus preaches, yet sadly, I am not surprised by the system’s support of the people who preach these divisive, racist, bigoted ideologies. This ban is sickening, but I know, for people who are activists on this campus and for people who organize, our silence is the last thing in mind.”