Posted February 22, 2018
“It’s complicated, man.”
That is how sophomore Mamu Hashim described the climate of freedom of speech at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
The UW System Board of Regents recently approved a policy on freedom of expression. The policy suspends or expels students who disrupt “the free speech of others/functioning of the institution” two or more times. This policy has garnered mixed reactions from students and organizations at UWRF.
Young Americans for Liberty President AJ Plehal supports the policy, he said. “It’s important to have a diverse set of opinions as long as we can discuss our differences civilly.”
“It’s one thing to protest a speaker peacefully – that’s protected by the First Amendment,” Plehal said. “But it’s another thing to do what we see at UC Berkeley … where you have students throwing trash cans, just causing an all-out riot.”
Plehal made his point on this clear: “If they’re going to cause a riot just because they disagree with someone – if they have to be expelled, we’re all adults here. They should grow up. I’ll support that.”
In a statement provided to WRFW and the Student Voice, College Republicans vice-chair Melanie Meyers gave her support for the policy. She said that their organization welcomes “the respectful sharing of ideas and debate on our campus.”
Meyers also said that “there has been evidence within the past year that this sentiment is not shared across all student organizations in this state.”
Meyers cited the incident at UW-Madison when Ben Shapiro spoke in November 2016. Members of the audience shouted Shapiro down during the question-and-answer portion of his speech. At one point audience members crowded his podium.
While some students support this new policy, others do not.
Sophomore Halley White said that she does not support the policy.
“I feel that it impedes on the right of free speech,” she said. As citizens, we have a right to protest.” White said that while students have a right to protest, they need to do so peacefully while also maintaining respect for others.
“There have been many times where I felt like I couldn’t express my opinions or thoughts in class because I knew there would be at least one student who would belittle me,” White said. “Even if what I said was relevant to the conversation and harmless.”
However, White does not think that everyone understands what freedom of speech is. “Freedom of speech does not mean you can say whatever you want without consequences.”
Hashim, vice president of the Black Student Union, said that these issues of free speech need to be addressed on the UWRF campus.
“Me and him (gesturing to another nearby student), we can go talk about it. But if we’re not going to do anything about it nothing is going to change,” Hashim said. “But I hope that they do something.”
Like Hashim, leaders of the Black Student Union also expressed concern over the policy.
“I feel like the policy doesn’t go as far as it needs to and that can change,” Black Student Union president Lamah Bility said.
Bility says that the policy lacks specific guidelines for handling situations where disruption is not a guest speaker, but interpersonal. He cited a situation this semester of an individual spreading hate towards a specific race.
“We had three or four instances where kids were Snapchatting and saying certain things about just being black in America. It was a bunch of racial, hurtful stuff,” Bility said. “Yes, that person has the right to say whatever they want to say but at the same time you have to be able to realize these are sensitive issues in our community.”
Bility also expressed concerns over how the policy was created.
“When you are planning the policy, make sure that you have (much) diversity in the room,” Bility said. “Make sure that people are well represented before you make a policy that would affect people’s lives.”
Assistant Chancellor of Student Affairs Gregg Heinselman has similar concerns, he said. “Quite often policymakers aren’t the individuals on a campus that are required to enforce the code and enforce and interpret the policy.”
Heinselman also said that the policy has brought specific difficulties in its implementation at UWRF.
“I don’t really think the policy was needed,” he said. “I think our student misconduct code, our academic misconduct code and our non-academic misconduct code, I feel, appropriately addresses those issues. I think this policy really layers on top of that, probably complicates it more than what we had before.”
Heinselman explained that the complications for the policy come from the wording. The policy only cites a “disturbance” as grounds for suspension or expulsion. He says that everyone has a different definition of the term “disturbance.”
Heinselman reaffirmed the university’s commitment to protecting its students while also protecting free speech. He says that UWRF has specific policies in place that help train and educate faculty on how to conduct courses so that diverse points of view can be discussed.
Heinselman says that while UWRF tends to be fairly neutral on some of the more controversial issues, he hopes to see more discussions around these topics, particularly free speech.
“The way to address free speech,” he said, “is more speech.”