University of Wisconsin Regents Walked Away From the Challenge of Democracy

On October 6th, the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents, mostly appointees of Governor Scott Walker, approved the ‘Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression’ policy. If a student is charged with “disorderly conduct” or “disruption of freedom of expression” two times, they will be suspended. Three times and they’ll be expelled.

Wisconsin campuses do not have a big enough problem - presumably protests drowning out other protests or speakers – to warrant this measure. The Regents, stewards of 26 institutions of higher education, are buying into a conservative fad and pandering to Governor Scott who can’t muster the energy to pass similar limitations in Madison.

The Regents are concerned about the civility of discourse. “Our obligation as a System is to ensure that different voices are heard and that civility prevails,” said President Ray Cross, rich with irony.

The vast majority of Americans crave civility in our public discourse but it is not and should not be mandatory. Assemblies grow louder and rowdier with the severity of their grievances. Speaking tours by white supremacists calling for the subjugation of minorities, for example, have drawn real ire this year. But when we dictate how individuals protest, we have quashed the freedom to protest or “the freedom to peaceably assemble”.

Student assemblies reflect the character of this first amendment right as it was envisioned when put to paper. Colonial-era riots and the Boston Tea Party, disruptive and likely to have drown out other voices, were the genesis of free assembly.

Because peaceful assembly was the revolution before 1776, it was regarded as vital to participatory democracy as religion, speech and press. Since, assemblies have been the catalysts for the advancement of minority rights. Free assembly is also a gift to the world community: the only internationally recognized human right with American origins.

A healthy democracy is loud, messy and even agonizing, challenging us to improve the human condition through a cacophony of competing ideas. By penalizing student contributions to the marketplace of ideas, the University of Wisconsin is obstructing democracy on its campuses.

The policy’s real threat lies in the vagueness of the relevant charges; a vagueness that will have a chilling effect on the practice of free assembly. Without clear guidance of what constitutes a “disruption of freedom of expression”, a student is more likely to stay home. Why gamble your future on a campus security officer’s discretion during a contentious assembly?

Managing first amendment rights in the public forum is difficult. Campus security must effectively manage competing assemblies in a way that permits both to take space within sight and sound of their intended audience and protects both of their messages.

Democracy is hard work and the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents walked away from the challenge.