The University of Wisconsin System has fallen under the scrutiny of free speech groups for a policy that limits free speech on the UW System campuses.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education identified a UW System policy as limiting freedom of speech of faculty and students, also known as a speech code.
“FIRE defines a ‘speech code’ as any university policy prohibiting speech that, in society at large, would be protected by the First Amendment,” said FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research Samantha Harris in an e-mail to The Badger Herald.
Harris said while the issue of speech codes at private universities is primarily a moral issue, public universities are legally required to protect their students’ First Amendment rights.
On FIRE’s website, the UW System received a red-light rating, indicating there is at least one campus policy that substantially restricts freedom of speech.
One policy listed was the UW System Board of Regents Racist and Other Discriminatory Conduct Policy.
The policy states “racist and other discriminatory conduct toward students, employees, officials, and guests in the University of Wisconsin System is conduct that will not be tolerated.”
According to the policy, name-calling and jokes based on ethnicity or one’s color, culture or history are considered discriminatory conduct.
UW political science professor Donald Downs said this policy appears to be similar to a UW System’s non-discrimination policy that was ruled as unconstitutional by a federal court in 1991.
According to the court documents for the case, the Board of Regents adopted the “Design for Diversity,” a plan to increase minority representation, out of concern raised by several racist incidents occurred on campus.
The UW Rule, a set of anti-discriminatory codes, was then developed as a result of the plan and was implemented on campus.
The judge presiding over the case ruled “content-based prohibitions such as that in the UW Rule, however well intended, simply cannot survive the screening which our Constitution demands.”
Downs said there is no evidence the current policy has been used to limit freedom of speech on any UW campuses, but FIRE and the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, a committee he co-founded, is looking more into the issue.
The policy may purely be symbolic and violations may not result in punishable actions, Downs said.
There is no problem with enlightenment or telling somebody who has made a racial slur that it was inappropriate, Downs said. The university runs into problems when it starts acting like “Big Brother” and punishing people for their speech.
Downs said there is still the issue of informal censorship, but freedom of speech on the UW campus is currently very strong.
Downs added UW has had a very tumultuous history with speech codes and freedom of speech issues.
In the 1990’s, UW System developed a system-wide set of harassment codes for students that were considered to be anti-discriminatory.
He said student codes were often applied in certain situations in which the codes never should have been applied.
During this time, there was one incident in which a student stole money from his roommate who happened to be Japanese, Downs said. The student did not steal the money from his roommate because he was Japanese, but the codes were applied to that student anyway and he was punished accordingly.
In addition, the UW had implemented and enforced a set of faculty codes of behavior in the classroom that heavily infringed on their right to freedom of speech for professors.
Members of what would become FIRE in 2000 and the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights led the fight against the faculty code and were able to abolish it in 1999, Downs said.
“I can honestly say that UW-Madison has been the center of more free speech issues than any other campus in the country,” said Downs, an adviser to the Board of Directors of The Badger Herald.