Universities need to protect protesters in order to protect free speech on campus

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Policies that protect only one form of free speech on university campuses can end up silencing another in the process. Any university policy that deals with student demonstrations on campus can’t leave peaceful protesters open to expulsion. 

In the United States, the University of Wisconsin recently passed a new policy that will punish and potentially expel students who engage in protests of campus events. The policy uses the language “violence and disorderly conduct,” meaning that any form of protest could potentially be attributed as disorderly conduct. Three counts of ‘disorderly conduct’ will merit expulsion from the university. 

The policy was intended to protect speakers invited to the campus from being assaulted or silenced. However, the policy doesn’t just target violent activists, it focuses on protesters in general.

It’s dangerous to silence someone’s voice because you don’t agree with it. But the University of Wisconsin’s response to the issue is doing that. 

At universities across North America, conservative speakers on university campuses have had presentations cancelled due to community backlash. With the rise of violent protest, the security fees for right-wing speakers is now a lot higher than their more liberal counterparts. 

This policy discourages student protesters from demonstrating on campus with a threat of expulsion. ‘Disorderly conduct’ has been defined  vaguely and can be applied to a wide range of activities, depending on what the board judging students defines as ‘disorderly.’ 

The language of the policy takes protest to the same level as violence. It poses violence and a broadly defined ‘disorderly conduct’ as two equal things when they aren’t. It’s no fringe opinion to assert that assault has no place on campus, but throwing activism as a whole into the same category creates a dangerous false equivalence. 

The parameters of civil protest are constantly being redefined and creating a policy to address student activism as a whole ignores the complexities that come with it. 

Today many people turn to social media to express discontent, but physically showing up at a protest is an important way of demonstrating passion and making a tangible statement. By policing how students can express their views the University of Wisconsin reserves the right to eradicate protests of any kind. In the process they’re silencing their students in favor of their speakers.  

The two agendas of protesting hate speech and protecting free speech aren’t mutually exclusive. Reconciling the two will take work, but a policy that leaves student protesters vulnerable to expulsion is not the way to do it. 

— Journal Editorial Board

 

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