University of Wisconsin system approves policy mandating punishment for students who disrupt free expression

WISCONSIN — University of Wisconsin schools will now be required to punish students who repeatedly disrupt freedom of expression — suspending students after two violations and expelling them after three.

The Board of Regents, which oversees policy for the 26 schools in the University of Wisconsin System, passed the Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression policy on Oct. 6., to comply with a bill passed by the Wisconsin legislature in May.

The Campus Free Speech Act required the UW System to develop a new policy, mandating the inclusion of specific statements such as, “it is not the proper role of an institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

The act points to three reports as model standards of campus free expression: The Woodward Report from Yale in 1974, a 2015 report from the University of Chicago, and the 1967 Kalven Committee Report of the University of Chicago.

As the SPLC has previously reported, recent years have seen a rising number of campus free expression bills, many of which are based on the 2015 University of Chicago report. These bills typically have multiple functions: defining public forums, cancelling speech-restrictive policies and regulation, contextualizing landmark high school free speech rulings for colleges and universities and protecting faculty. 

Under the previous UW System policy chancellors had the ability to discipline students who, “participate in major disruptions and prevent someone from speaking.” The new policy makes discipline mandatory, meaning administrators have no choice in whether to punish students who impede others’ free expression.  

There has been some pushback. UW-Madison said prior to the board’s vote that, “the mandatory sanctions set out by the policy unnecessarily take away the discretion of a campus to impose sanctions appropriate to a student’s conduct in a given situation.” The university did not retract this criticism, but has said it will adhere to the policy.

The definition of “disruption” is flexible in the new policy, which allows individual schools to determine an action’s severity, “since no two disruptions are alike,” according to a press release from the UW System.

The new policy also contains an education component. UW System schools are required to address freedom of expression issues during freshman and transfer student orientation and chancellors must submit annual reports to the board, “to ensure accountability and transparency.”

If you’re a student journalist requiring legal assistance or have legal questions about a story you’re covering, schedule a call with our lawyer or put in a legal request.

SPLC staff writer Emily Goodell can be reached by email, on Twitter @GoodellEmily or by phone at (202) 478-1926.

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Wednesdays about the week’s new articles.

Fill out my online form.