University of Wisconsin regents to vote on free speech resolution after faculty complaint

A University of Wisconsin System regents committee is set to consider a resolution Thursday affirming a commitment to free speech, after the chancellor of its Madison campus wrote a blog on civil rights that some professors complained could have the effect of inhibiting debate over ideas.

The regents' Education Committee is expected to vote on the resolution during a meeting Thursday afternoon on the UW-Madison campus. Approval would send the measure to the full Board of Regents on Friday.

"Of course, different ideas in the university community will often and quite naturally conflict," the resolution states. "But 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."

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in her blog on Nov. 13, a day after UW students held a street protest to show support for black students at the University of Missouri, that no one is entitled to "express (their thoughts) in ways that diminish others, or that devalues the presence of anyone that is part of our Badger community."

Blank amended her remarks three days later to say she was trying to encourage civility and wasn't advocating for limiting free speech.

Three UW-Madison professors — Donald Downs, John Sharpless and Mary Andersen — wrote a column on Nov. 30 saying Blank's remarks could inhibit the free exchange of ideas on campus and they run contrary to basic First Amendment protections. They acknowledged that Blank was trying to head off racial confrontations like Missouri but said the "clash of ideas constitutes the heart and soul of what a university is."

The University of Wisconsin debate is the latest of a wave of protests on college campuses over race, sexual misconduct and other civil rights issues has led to concerns that free speech could be sacrificed in order to address student grievances.

In Columbia, Missouri, protesters angry over racial incidents on campus forced University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe to resign last month. An assistant professor aligned with protesters blocked a student photographer from the protesters' tent city and university police told students to report any hateful or hurtful speech they experienced, leaving the impression any comment considered offensive could be prosecuted as a crime.

Civil liberties supporters also have cited the use of "trigger warnings" to alert students about uncomfortable course content. Campus groups also have protested or cancelled appearances by speakers with contentious views, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Asked if Blank's remarks drove the resolution, UW System spokesman Alex Hummel said Regent Tim Higgins has been working on freedom of speech issues since this past spring. It wasn't immediately clear who actually wrote the resolution. Higgins didn't respond to voicemail and email messages.