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Free speech dies on campus

By M.D. Kittle

Wisconsin Spotlight | April 24, 2020

MADISON — As governments just about everywhere stifle civil liberties in the name of public safety, a new report examines the depth of free speech restrictions on Wisconsin college campuses.

The review of speech codes at Badger State colleges and universities by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) found more than half of institutions reviewed substantially restrict freedom of speech.

Three quarters of Wisconsin’s technical colleges and one third of the four-year colleges in the University of Wisconsin System have policies that severely restrict free speech, according to the study. WILL could not identify one college or university that had no policies that restrict or threaten free speech.

“Free speech is under attack on Wisconsin’s college campuses,” said WILL Deputy Counsel Anthony LoCoco in a press release. ”This review should serve as a resource to students, faculty, administrators, boards, and taxpayers to ensure that Wisconsin’s college campuses respect the First Amendment and encourage free and open debate.”

WILL rated Wisconsin institutions of higher education according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) traffic light system. Red means that the school “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Yellow means that the school “is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” Green means that the school’s “policies do not seriously imperil speech.” Among the findings:

  • 55 percent of the total institutions were rated red.
  • 75 percent of Wisconsin technical colleges rated red.
  • 33 percent of University of Wisconsin four-year colleges rated red.
  • No Wisconsin institutions earned a green rating.

Bias Response Systems

A Bias Response System is a formal way to solicit reports from students, faculty or the community on “offensive” speech. Some schools will often have a bias response team (BRT) in place to respond to such incidences.

  • At least a dozen Wisconsin schools explicitly mention “bias” in their policies.
  • At least six Wisconsin schools mention BRT’s, including four-year UW schools like Platteville, Stevens Point, Superior, River Falls and Whitewater.

Free Speech Zones

Free speech zones are designated areas on a campus where free speech is allowed and thus they are a tool for administrations to control and limit speech on their campuses.

  • University of Wisconsin Parkside has two designated “free speech areas,” and Northcentral Technical College has a “public assembly area.”
  • WILL successfully sued Northeast Wisconsin Technical College for their small free speech zone.

Nationally, 89 percent of American colleges maintain policies that restrict — or could too easily be applied to restrict — student expression, according to a report released in December by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“Many college administrators are scrubbing the most egregious policies from the books, but they’re increasingly crafting subtler policies that still limit student expression,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Laura Beltz, the lead author of the study. “Yellow light policies aren’t good enough — they still restrict protected speech. Colleges must go green or go back to the drawing board.”

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