University says it won't punish students for protected speech, following legal demand letter

After a challenge from the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee informed students that they cannot be punished for reports of 'hate- or bias-motivated incident[s].'

Director of SLF’s 1A Project Cece O’Leary told Campus Reform that 'reporting systems scare conservative students into silence.'

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) has clarified its bias reporting system after a legal group warned that it could “chill freedom of expression.”

In response to a demand letter from Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), UWM updated its website to inform students that they cannot be punished for reports of “hate- or bias-motivated incident[s].” 

The Office of Equity/Diversity Services (EDS) defines these incidents as those “directed against an individual, or individuals, because of their actual or perceived protected characteristics” and maintains a form that anyone can use send anonymous reports for EDS’ review. 

[RELATED: 2023 Outlook: Bias reporting systems continue to infringe 1A rights]

Following our demand letter, students at UWM who were tired of self-censoring engaged in campus activism to ensure that the administrators took our demands seriously,” Director of SLF’s 1A Project Cece O’Leary told Campus Reform. 

“Now, they can freely participate in free speech activities without constantly wondering whether they’ll be reported to the campus thought police and subjected to lengthy punishment.”

SLF, a “nonprofit legal organization dedicated to defending liberty,” sent demand letters to UWM and 11 other universities in Oct. 2022 that “identified potential free speech violations.” These letters have resulted in policy changes or clarifications at the University of MaineSouthern Utah University, and Iowa State University

UWM’s updated website says that the university “is bound by the First Amendment,” linking its free speech policies. The recourse for students reporting a bias incident “include[s] UWM’s Rapid Response Team (RRT),” a group of staff and administrators “provid[ing] care and support in response to incidents of hate and bias.”

The website clarifies that the RRT “does not investigate such reports.”

UWM cannot take any action that could lead students to self-censor, including requesting ‘voluntary’ meetings, investigating, or punishing students for the words they say,” O’Leary said. “We are pleased that the university has made changes to its website to reflect that.”

O’Leary continued to say that “reporting systems scare conservative students into silence.” SLF’s demand letter argued that conservative views on topics including “marriage and family life” and “gender identity” make them especially prone to self-censorship. 

[RELATED: Bowling Green State University receives legal directive to disband its bias reporting system]

“Under the University’s bias reporting system, those students could be reported for any speech that offends their peers, such as handing out flyers describing abortion or hosting a debate about transgender issues,” the letter reads. 

“Although speech on these topics may offend some students, that does not mean a university can shield students from it by giving them a mechanism through which to report it.”

Conservative students “are typically the ones engaging in open debate and discourse,” SLF General Counsel Kimberly Hermann points out in the press release

“We stand behind those students, and we are pleased that UWM has met its duty to protect the speech of every student on campus,” she says. 

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.