University of Wisconsin Regents says no to demand for safe spaces

The University of Wisconsin system’s Board of Regents passed a resolution Friday defending the principles of free expression in reaction to student demands for “safe spaces.”

The Associated Press reports that the resolution passed easily by a vote of 16-2, and was inspired by the racial protests at the University of Missouri and elsewhere, which have occasionally involved efforts to silence dissenting voices.

“These are not just pretty words we are going to put in a brass plaque,” Regent Jose Delgado told AP, referring to the board’s commitment to put its principles into practice. “The ability to speak in this country in a rational, academic way is under attack. You've got to be able to listen hard, even if it hurts.”

Another factor that some believe may have contributed to the resolution’s genesis is a mass email sent to students and faculty last month by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, according to The Wisconsin State Journal, though a spokesman for the UW system denied any such correlation.

In the November 13 email inspired by a “Stand with Mizzou” demonstration at the UW-Madison campus, Blank had asserted that “while individuals are always free to express their own beliefs, no one is entitled to express them in ways that diminish others, or that devalues the presence of anyone that is part of our Badger community.”

Whether or not the email was a contributing factor, though, the Regents’ resolution does serve as an outright rejection of the sentiments Blank expressed, explicitly disavowing any institutional responsibility to shelter students from opinions with which they may disagree.

“Academic freedom includes the freedom to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to reach conclusions according to one's own scholarly discernment,” the resolution asserts. “These freedoms include the right to speak and write as a member of the university community or as a private citizen without institutional discipline or restraint, on scholarly matters or on matters of public concern.”

While acknowledging that “different ideas in the university community will often and quite naturally conflict,” the Regents nonetheless maintain that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.

“Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community (or those outside the community) to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” the document reiterates. “It is for the members of the university community, not for the institution itself, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress exploration of ideas or expression of speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

The Regents also note that freedom of expression “does not mean that members of the university community may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish,” listing several legal limitations to First Amendment protections such as libel, genuine threats, and harassment, but point out that “these are narrow exceptions … and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with each institution’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.”

In the wake of the resolution’s passage, the UW Board of Regents has received praise from a number of sources, including academia and politics.

In a blog post Sunday, Dr. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Chicago, applauded the Regents for modeling their resolution on UC’s own affirmation of free speech—known as the “Chicago Statement”—which has been held up as a model for other universities, particularly in the wake of the Mizzou protests.

[RELATED: University of Chicago held up as national model for free speech]

Similarly, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) also compared the UW resolution favorably to the Chicago Statement, remarking that unlike other institutions that have adopted those principles, the UW resolution will apply to all 26 schools in the state university system, rather than a single campus.

“What we have is very similar to the Chicago standard, which is the gold standard,” UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs, a co-author of the resolution, told FIRE. “Chicago’s one school, Princeton’s one school, Purdue’s one school, [but] this is the whole UW system. This is a statement for the nation.”

The Board was also lauded by Republican State Rep. Jim Steineke, House Majority Leader of the Wisconsin General Assembly, in a statement released Friday.

“Our students should find higher education institutions to be a place where they can freely exercise their [First] Amendment rights without fear of repercussions,” Steineke opined. “The Regents’ action today reaffirms the importance of the free exchange of ideas.”

As the Regents note at the conclusion of the resolution, citing a statement issued by their predecessors in 1894, “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

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