College's 'protest guidelines' concern free speech advocates

Nonprofit free speech advocacy organizations, however, are urging the university to proceed with caution.

Students who disrupt free speech multiple times could be suspended or even expelled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that students could face punishment if they choose to disrupt the free speech of others. 

UWM announced on Sept. 5 that it would be releasing a set of “Protest Guidelines” that are aimed at informing students about when a protest turns into a disruption of someone’s speech. Examples of “likely disruptive” behavior include “blocking the vision of others in any manner,” “producing noise that interferes with events and activities,” “turning off lights in the room,” and more.

UWM defines “non-disruptive behavior” as “silently protesting a speaker by attending an event with duct tape over one’s mouth or wearing clothes with words or pictures,” “holding a small poster in front of one’s person if an event allows signs,” and “engaging with a speaker if the speaker welcomes the interaction.”

“Bottom line: Protesting is fine, disrupting others’ free speech is not,” the school states in a news release.

[RELATED: Students call free speech ‘violent’ while disrupting lecture]

Students accused of disruptive behavior will be investigated by the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. Under the new Regents policy, if a student is found guilty of violating the policy twice, they will be suspended “for a minimum of one semester.” If a student violates the policy three times, they will be expelled. 

The school’s formulation of protest guidelines was accelerated when the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents approved a substantial free speech policy which would add the possibility of suspension or expulsion as punishment for disrupting others’ right to speak, as reported by Campus Reform.

[RELATED: Columbia students: Shouting down conservatives is ‘free speech’]

“The guidelines codify many practices that our campus has used for years to successfully facilitate events, protests, and counter-protests in ways that respect the free speech rights of all parties,” UWM spokesperson Meredith McGlone told Campus Reform. “We shared this document at the beginning of the academic year for two reasons: to help individuals and groups plan for peaceful events and to provide students with behavior expectations as they participate in these campus activities.”

The guidelines were a product of the UW-Madison Protest Administrative Review Team, which was made up of students and shared governance representatives. The administrative review team reviewed a draft of the guidelines in the spring 2018 semester and gave feedback.

[RELATED: UNH prof gloats about disrupting conservative speaker]

Rick Esenbeg, president and general counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty took a cautious approach to the policy, expressing some concern.

“Any policy that prohibits ‘disruption’ of speech must be carefully circumscribed to protect the right of others to respond,” Esenberg told Campus Reform. “The university can probably limit most of the activity that is identified as ‘likely’ to be disruptive but the broad language regarding substantial and material disruption of the functioning of an institution or the rights of others should be more carefully limited.”Esenberg added that while suspension and expulsion may be warranted in some cases, WILL is not in favor of “mandatory minimums,” as described in the “Protest Guidelines.”

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Vice President of Policy Reform Azhar Majeed agreed on one of those points. 

“I think it’s useful for students to be told what constitutes protected speech, including protest and to also be told what is not protected under the First Amendment such as disruptive activity,” Majeed said. “I would encourage schools like UW-Madison to educate students and talk to them about what they did wrong, rather than suspending or expelling them.”

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