by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Jonathan Butcher writes for the Martin Center about protecting free speech on college campuses.
Who cares that 20 students at the University of Wisconsin staged a protest in October 2017? Just months earlier, violence broke out at the University of California, Berkeley, after the invitation of a controversial speaker to campus. In March, a mob assaulted a Middlebury College professor, sending her to the hospital following a lecture. In May, Evergreen State University canceled classes and postponed graduation after students occupied administrative buildings and chased a professor into hiding—all of which would make the Wisconsin protest otherwise unremarkable.
Yet the demonstration in Wisconsin has one distinguishing feature that offers hope for the future of academic freedom and the pursuit of truth in the academy. Emotionally charged rallies on college campuses typically do not stop until a scheduled event is disrupted or a building has been occupied. The Wisconsin students, though, said that the University of Wisconsin’s new policies to protect free speech on campus “definitely changed the way” the group acted, according to the school newspaper. The group held a demonstration, but did not delay or disrupt the scheduled event.
Adopted by the university governing board one month before the protest occurred, the policy includes potential consequences, including suspension or expulsion, for students who violate others’ free speech rights. This should be welcome news to taxpayers, families, students, and policymakers. Anyone who is on a public college campus has the right to express himself in public areas of the campus or in public forums, as long as he does not interfere with the ability of other people to do the same. The new policy did not prevent the group from protesting. The guest speaker delivered her remarks, other students were able to attend the event, and media gave the demonstrators space in the ensuing headlines.