This month, during a meeting at the University of Wisconsin Stout in Menomonie, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents adopted a systemwide policy that punishes student activists exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest. Specifically, the board adopted language that states students will be suspended if found to have twice engaged in violence or other disorderly conduct -- neither of which have been clearly defined -- that disrupts the free speech of other people. Students will be expelled if found to have done so three times.
The board’s decision, in which only one regent -- state public schools superintendent Tony Evers -- cast a dissenting vote, comes as a pre-emptive and intentional sequel to legislation introduced by Republicans in the Wisconsin State Assembly this past spring. Although the policy will not go into effect until system leaders write administrative rules and it is subsequently signed off on by the governor and state lawmakers, the decision re-establishes a dangerous precedent at a critical political moment in higher education. To be clear, it is a decision that reinforces institutionalized white supremacy -- and other oppressive forms of systemic power -- by criminalizing the self-advocacy undertaken by the most vulnerable populations in our nation’s colleges and universities.
Since 2014, at least four states have adopted policies that address the discontinuation of campus “free speech zones” at public colleges and universities, which effectively repealed previous policies that limited where students could lawfully engage in demonstrations. This includes the state of Missouri, which, after the killing of black teenager Michael Brown and collective action by Concerned Students 1950 at the University of Missouri, Columbia, was the ostensible epicenter of protests that swept the nation. Although none of the aforementioned policies explicitly advocate for disciplining students, they do suggest, implicitly and explicitly, that the dissolution of sanctioned protest spaces should not be interpreted as protecting the right of students to disrupt the suggested free speech of others. This point is an important one, as many conservatives have obscured the right to free speech by calling for it to be expanded to include “right-leaning” speakers (and their campus sponsors) who publicly advocate white nationalist and white supremacist agendas.
Let us consider the University of Wisconsin at Madison in particular (the flagship institution in the University of Wisconsin System) and the board’s recent policy decision when viewed retroactively. Many students who engaged in disrupting a speech by Ben Shapiro, former editor of Breitbart News -- which was recently exposed for its intentional efforts to seed neo-Nazi and white nationalist ideas into the mainstream -- would have been considered for suspension and expulsion. This despite the fact that their civil disobedience was in direct response to the racist rhetoric advanced by Shapiro. Furthermore, similar rhetoric had already manifested itself in a litany of racist incidents on campuses the semester before, at which point hundreds of mostly black and brown students responded in protest to demand greater institutional accountability for a hostile racial climate on campus.
However, it is also important to note that what recently transpired in Wisconsin is not unique. At least seven states have, over the past three years, passed legislation under the guise of strengthening protections of free speech on campus, which may have serious implications for student activists and others engaged in disruptive counteractions. In North Carolina, for example, House Bill 527, also known as the Restore Free Campus Speech Act, has already become law. The act explicitly prohibits institutions from “disinviting speakers whom members of the campus community wish to hear from” as well as establishing “a system of disciplinary sanctions for students and anyone else who interferes with the free speech rights of others.” Following the trend, even the falsely regarded bastion of liberal progressivism, California, to which I recently moved, has introduced into its assembly the California Campus Free Speech Act, which would affect both public and private institutions.
What is consistent about the rationale of policy makers advancing such legislation, including that of University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross, is a conflation of civil discourse and the intellectual debate of ideas with students’ contestation of antiblack rhetoric and racist worldviews. Such a conflation disregards the well-documented, rigorously researched and empirically proven role that hate speech plays not only in inciting violence but as a form of violence itself. Furthermore, such rationale obscures and perverts the very foundations of free speech, both as law and as a movement, by subverting its expressed intention to protect and uphold the forceful contestation of unjust institutional forms and relationships of power. In effect, these policies intend to create a false equivalency between antioppressive and oppressive free speech -- however, the latter remains underpinned by racist ideologies of material consequence. They also aim to suppress and criminalize, through punitive measures, those not only willing to labor in the name of justice but also those who must because disruption remains a tactic on which their very minds, bodies and spirits depend.
An insidious and hypocritical fallacy undergirds the aforementioned rationale, put forth both by postsecondary institutions and state legislatures, which must be challenged. That is, higher education stakeholders must widely contest the notion that colleges and universities are (and should be) ideologically neutral on social and political issues.
At minimum, we must continue to illuminate the ways in which colleges and universities have not only historically benefited from institutional forms of power (e.g., use of African slave labor and transacting black bodies for financial gain) but also still contribute to the social reproduction and exacerbation of issues such as class stratification, sexism and rape culture, and, yes, the proliferation of white supremacist worldviews. In doing so, higher education scholars as well as faculty members, administrators and students expose the clear discontinuity between the values many colleges and universities espouse and their institutional actions. Drawing attention to this reality, in this political moment, requires institutions to be accountable for answering the question of whether their neutrality, within a broader climate of injustice, squarely situates their historical legacy on the side of the oppressor rather than in solidarity with the oppressed.