MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin System leaders approved a resolution Friday affirming free speech and academic freedom, joining colleges across the country that have officially proclaimed their devotion to free expression amid concerns academia is trying to protect students from being offended.
The resolution, adopted by a vote of 16-2, says the university shouldn’t shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome or offensive.
“These are not just pretty words we are going to put in a brass plaque,” Regent Jose Delgado said. “The ability to speak in this country in a rational, academic way is under attack. You’ve got to be able to listen hard, even if it hurts.”
Civil rights advocates are concerned that universities are trying to limit free speech to protect students from feeling offended.
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 raised concerns over the use of so-called “trigger warnings” to alert students about uncomfortable course content.
Campus groups also have protested or cancelled appearances by contentious speakers.
UW-Madison had a freedom of expression spat last month after Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in her blog that no one is entitled to express themselves in ways that diminish others. Ms. Blank walked her remarks back a few days later, saying she was simply trying to encourage civility.
Regent Tim Higgins and faculty members began developing the resolution in May, following the lead of the University of Chicago and Purdue. Regents President Regina Miller insisted the measure wasn’t inspired by any recent events. She said it’s meant to reassure faculty members that they will still enjoy academic freedom as the regents draft new tenure policies. She also pointed out that the regents have reaffirmed their commitment to free speech seven times since 1922.
Still, Ms. Miller said students must find the strength to listen to viewpoints they don’t share.
Charles Pruitt and Jose Vasquez were the only regents who voted against the measure. Mr. Pruitt said he didn’t think the resolution was thought through, while Mr. Vasquez said he didn’t see any problems with people expressing themselves on UW System campuses now.
“What is the issue we’re trying to truly address?” he said.
A group of about 20 protesters filed into the meeting after the resolution was approved to draw attention to their demands for more recognition of diversity on campus. Ms. Miller acknowledged them and thanked them for coming but did not give them a chance to speak.
As the meeting drew to a close, the students stood and demanded to be allowed to talk. One of them read a speech about how the resolution would open the door to hate speech. The regents ignored him and made their closing remarks as he continued to shout.
The regents then moved into a previously scheduled closed session and police cleared the room. The students left without incident. UW System President Ray Cross planned to meet with the group later Friday, a system spokesman said.
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