Free Speech for Campus
May 22, 2024
Tim Higgins (920) 716-8596
[email protected]

The First Amendment secures the freedom of speech from governmental infringement. This freedom is among the most important freedoms we enjoy. Indeed, the central purpose of our organization, Free Speech For Campus, is to protect free speech on college campuses.

We are disappointed by both UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee’s inconsistent handling of the recent anti-Israeli protests. Each campus has rewarded illegal behavior and forgotten its primary responsibility: to educate students.  And so, we call on the Wisconsin Legislature to hold hearings on these incidents and question University administrators.

Outside (and well-funded) groups joined with students to protest Israel’s incursion into Gaza—after Hamas invaded Israel on October 7, 2023. Regrettably, to oppose Israel, protestors have constructed unlawful encampments on college campuses, destroyed public property, and harassed people who disagree with them. According to UW-Madison police, on Wednesday, May 1, 2024, “a student who was displaying a pro-Israel sign reported that an unknown man with a knife visibly attached to his waistband approached her on Library Mall and stated to her: ‘Jews shouldn’t be on campus.’”

We believe the exercise of freedom of speech on college campuses is critical for our constitutional republic. But the freedom to speak has always had time, place and manner restrictions. Protests cannot be conducted anytime and anywhere at the protestor’s choosing. And when the speech involved impedes University operations, threatens other students, destroys property, or violates laws and rules, the University can prohibit it.

The recent protests on the UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee campuses by those who support Palestinians and Gaza inhabitants clearly violated University rules.  Protestors encamped on University property, impeded students and the public who wished to use University facilities, and they harassed people with different views.

But UW officials failed to enforce Regent policy, specifically Regent Policy Document 4-21. The UW-Madison administration (after some delay), removed the encampments. Then, inexplicably, it allowed them to return. Administrators backed down when the encampments reappeared, and then “negotiated” with the protesters over compliance with state law and University policy. UW-Madison Chancellor Mnookin even congratulated the protestors in a university-wide email, stating: “I also want to thank the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] student leaders and their faculty liaisons for their constructive engagement as we searched for a mutually acceptable path forward.” Some faculty took up the cause and actions of the protesters and condemned even the inconsistent and half-hearted efforts of campus administration.

At UW-Milwaukee, campus administration negotiated an end to protester encampments by agreeing not to sanction those who violated University rules. Further, reports indicate that UW-Milwaukee agreed to endorse a cease-fire in Gaza and encourage affiliates to end ties with certain Israeli companies.  This agreement was so unprecedented that UW President Jay Rothman called it “disappointing” and was “continuing to assess the decision-making processes that led to” that agreement.

The campus administrations at both UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee failed responses (along with faculty support for the protestors) will encourage more encampments and promote the very conduct the campuses sought to end.  What’s more, this behavior undermines the confidence of the citizens of Wisconsin in the University as a place where students are educated, not indoctrinated, and learn to be responsible and law-abiding citizens. The University should adhere to Regent Policy Document 4-21 by maintaining institutional neutrality and educating its students on the scope and limits of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech guarantee rather than catering to an unlawful mob.

We therefore call on the Wisconsin Legislature to hold hearings on these incidents and question University administrators about why Regent policy has been ignored.  Tax and tuition payers must be assured that their money is being properly spent. Officials must explain why they negotiated the removal of the encampments in the way they did.  They must explain whether the UW sent any state funds to the protestors and student groups. These and other questions demand answers.

Wisconsin citizens deserve better from their public higher education system.

Legislature Must Hold Hearings on Campus Protests