University of Wisconsin develops tough policy to ensure free speech

Last year the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents mandated that each of the University’s campuses must develop a policy codifying what constitutes a disruption of speech, and also to specify the possible punishments for disruptors. The flagship campus, UW Madison, has now put out a tough but fair policy that, for the first time I know of, specifies exactly what constitutes a disruption (as well as describing “gray areas”) and outlining what punishments will be meted out to those proven to have disrupted freedom of speech or expression. You can find the pdf of that document, prepared by the University Police Department and the Division of Student Affairs, by clicking on the screenshot below.

It’s a thorough document, laying out in detail the University’s principles of free expression (similar to those of the University of Chicago), what constitutes a disruption of that expression, how it is to be documented and adjudicated, who is responsible for protecting students (both protestors and speakers), how people will be trained to deal with potential and actual disruptions, how security will be notified in advance, and what the punishments for disruption could be.

Here, for instance, are the guiding principles (note that UW is a state school and thus subject to the stipulations of the First Amendment to the Constitution):

UW-Madison endeavors to educate students to become responsible citizens of the world who exercise critical thinking. Our mission calls on us to provide a learning environment in which faculty, staff and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will improve the quality of life for all and help future generations thrive. This mission is advanced by ensuring a pursuit of learning and exchange of ideas that extends to every corner of our diverse human experience.

Protecting and promoting freedom of speech and expression is not only a fundamental constitutional right, it is the very bedrock of learning and is central to the University experience. It is vital to our University community that members of the community feel free to express their views, regardless of how unpopular those views may be. But while the First Amendment protects the right to express one’s views, it also allows the University to place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on that expression. The First Amendment does not guarantee the right to say anything, any time, or in any place. To this end, protests and demonstrations that impede or that disrupt the academic mission, threaten research, interfere with the free speech of others or threaten campus/personal safety will prompt a swift and coordinated response to ensure compliance with UW rules.

That sounds pretty good to me, and I have no beef with the statement itself.

Here are some things that constitute “likely disruptive” behavior (there’s also a category of “likely non-disruptive” behavior, which includes stuff like “pictures or words on clothing”):

Likely Disruptive

• Blocking the vision of others in any manner. (Examples: a sign, certain clothing, a prop, a person’s body, etc.)

• Producing noise that interferes with events and activities.

• Laser pointers.

• Turning off lights in the room.

• Setting off alarms on phones.

• Facsimile weapons.

• Signs where event doesn’t permit such signs.

No more chanting, holding up signs in front of the room, or turning on fire alarms. Yay!

As far as documenting disruptions, the one complaint I have is that the documentation seems to be largely the responsibility of the event organizers, who are asked to “document the disruption with pictures, videos, and witnesses.”  The cops are used only as a last resort. But it seems to me the UW police can also testify about disruptions rather than relying on organizers, who already have their hands full with an event. Also, this doesn’t seem to require the university police to disband a prohibited disruption or to make disrupting students leave the venue.  In other words, the sanctions consist largely of punishments post facto, which may not prevent an event from being “shut down.”

That said, students identified as disruptors will be judged according to the University’s non-academic code of conduct. A single instance can be punished, though punishments are unspecified, but a second instance can carry suspension for a minimum of one semester, and a third incident seems to require mandatory expulsion.

This all seems fair to me. What’s different about it is that the rules are clearly codified, the disruptions specified, and the punishments largely stipulated. To date, many universities have paid only lip service to free speech, and I’m aware of only a handful of cases in which students disrupting a talk have been punished even slightly. It’s time that students learn how free speech works in this Republic.



  1. Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff. Hopefully more Universities will follow suit.

  2. rickflick
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I approve.

  3. CAS
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Great! Not stopping interference with free speech may cause problems initially, but if violators are punished quickly, it should work. Let’s hope other universities enact similar clear policies.

  4. Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    With our preoccupation on this subject this a move in the right direction. Hopefully students will learn, the sky will stay where it is and how to counter and deal with that which ‘hurts’ them.

  5. Posted September 26, 2018 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Facsimile weapons.

    Ok, so some sort of real weapon is in order…

  6. Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:11 pm | Permalink


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