Freedom of speech: Infringed upon by UW System speech codes or securely navigated by bias response teams?

By Lara Bockenstedt

Where should the line be drawn for how far universities should interfere when potentially inflammatory words are said on a college campus?  

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) disagrees with many UW speech codes deciding just that, yet for many students, speech codes in the form of bias response teams are a mark of a safer campus.

After gathering data on the bias reporting system, teams at FIRE surveyed 231 public and private institutions’ bias response teams during 2016. The foundation’s mission is written as advocating individual rights on college campuses and universities.

In  2016, they gave University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and University of Wisconsin-OshKosh red light scores. University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and University of Wisconsin-Stout received yellow scores in a spotlight on speech codes rating.

UW-Eau Claire professor of political science, Peter Myers, said

Graphic created by Lara Bockenstedt

speech codes become dangerous when drawn in broad terms.

“They often wind up suppressing speech. It really isn’t hate speech, it’s just partisan speech,” Myers said. “It’s just speech that sometimes people don’t like because it’s a different opinion from the opinion they have. That’s where organizations like FIRE really get alarmed.”

Wisconsin Watchdog reported on a story concerning the foundation’s bias response team 2017 report. The report took issue with the composition of bias response teams (BIRT). The 42 percent of surveyed teams that include law enforcement or campus security officers, as well as the 12 percent that include an administrator dedicated to media relations.

The report emphasized and took issue with opaque definitions of “bias”.

“A significant minority include political affiliation or speech as a potential bias,” The report says, “inviting reports of and investigations into political speech by law enforcement and student conduct administrators.”

Myers, who is currently working on a fellowship for American political thought, said too much general control over freedom of speech on campuses can be a detrimental aspect for campus communities.

“Students in particular are less protective of freedom of speech,” Myers said. “But I think the longer range trend — this really goes back to the 1990s — is that campuses are less protective of free speech than previously. The less protective part deals with campus administration as well as the students.”

Additionally, the report published that “bias” was broadly defined by several university’s teams to include categories such as “smoker status,” “shape” and “intellectual perspective.”

UW-Green Bay Assistant Dean of Students Mark Olkowsky said their team’s definition of bias stemmed from meetings with groups across campus such as the American Intercultural Center, the Diversity Services Office and the International Ed office.

“It was a lot of wordsmithing with a lot of hands in the kitchen,” Olkowsky said.

At UW-Eau Claire, bias and hate incidents are defined as “an act of conduct, speech or expression to which a bias motive is evident as a contributing factor (regardless of whether the act is criminal).” The definition is sifted down to acts of identity bias including disability, gender identity and religion.

While FIRE found issues with language and misuse of how bias is depicted, Ashley Sukhu, 2016-2017 student body president at UW-Eau Claire, said the team’s main issue is in an inability to communicate their purpose and react in a time-efficient manner.

The purpose of bias response teams, she said, are widely misrepresented.

“I think a lot of people assume that their job has been to confirm a reputation, which is not necessarily what they do. It’s a lot for that group of people to take on,” Sukhu said.

Of the potential to infringe upon student rights, Sukhu said “sometimes we really want to see, like, ‘that person said something really terrible, this should happen.’ Well, you can get away with saying something really terrible, as long as it’s not a direct threat.”

Having served on the team as a student senator, Sukhu sees it as a compact group of people who can provide a preliminary response to reports of bias. After getting in touch with either the person who submitted the complaint or the person affected, the team issues recommendations to pertinent groups of how to prevent such acts in the future . 

“I really wanted to see direct, immediate action and I wanted to see a further education component happening from BIRT (bias response team),” Sukhu said, “but recognizing that that’s not necessarily what BIRT is supposed to do was very difficult for me.”

UW-Madison witnessed an increase in the reporting of bias or hate incidents between Jan. 1 to June 30, according to a summary of statistics, leaping from 18 reported incidents to 66. However, the incidents reported diverged from FIRE’s findings. About half of the reported incidents focused on ethnicity or national origin, while 13 dealt with gender identity and four involved disability accommodations.

A fellow UW System’s bias response team received flak during that time period for a response that spurred controversy. The LaCrosse Tribune reported in April, 2016 that UW-LaCrosse’s bias response team had responded to pro-Trump sidewalk messages in a “free speech dust-up.”

“While we respect peoples’ right to express opinions, we also recognize that some communities on campus experience these messages as discriminatory or hostile,” the Research & Resource Center for Campus Climate posted on their Facebook page April 18th. The message was later taken down April 21st.

At the time, FIRE had given UW-La-Crosse their lowest rating, a red light, for the campus climate office’s policies within the bias and hate reporting system.

Olkowsky, current chair of UW-Green Bay’s bias response team, said the team is exceedingly cautious in how they approach telling students what is inappropriate to say on campus.

“We’ll lay out ‘here’s the policy, here’s the message that you’re sending. Is that really what you want to send?’ And most of the time, it’s not,” Olkowsky said. “Most of the time, it’s a miscommunication or ‘I didn’t think it would be that offensive to them.’ So we’re helping them educate and understand the bigger picture of the impact of their actions.”

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