Posts Tagged ‘University of Wisconsin’

Nickel and diming freedom of speech

April 2, 2012

The video above tells the story of a University of Wisconsin professor who stood up to administrators who demanded he take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language.

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1956.   One of the things I was proud of was the university’s dedication to academic freedom, which is just another word for freedom of speech as practiced on the university level.   A plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, one of the main academic buildings,  quoted as follows from a Board of Regents declaration in 1894 defending the rights of a professor who was under attack by members of the state legislature for allegedly advocating socialism.

WHATEVER MAY BE THE LIMITATIONS WHICH TRAMMEL INQUIRY ELSEWHERE, WE BELIEVE THAT THE GREAT STATE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SHOULD EVER ENCOURAGE THAT FEARLESS AND ENDLESS SIFTING AND WINNOWING BY WHICH ALONE THE TRUTH CAN BE FOUND.

When I attended the University of Wisconsin, the administration and faculty lived up to that declaration.   This was in the era of Joe McCarthy, and the university administration was under pressure to ban the Labor Youth League, a student organization which was on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations.  The administration said that so long as the LYL observed the university’s rules, they had as much right to hold meetings and invite outside speakers as any other–which was what they should have done, but not everybody would have agreed with in those days.

More recently the University stood up for Prof. William Cronon, the distinguished geographer-historian, when he came under attack by members of the state legislature after revealing that legislation proposed by the Scott Walker administration was drafted by an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council,  which is backed by the right-wing Koch brothers.[1]

But while defending itself against external threats to free speech, the University of Wisconsin’s internal policies subordinate free speech to other goals, such as “sensitivity.”  The University of Wisconsin was one of the universities which had speech codes in the 1990s prohibiting “demeaning verbal and other expressive behavior.”  While this code has been repealed, the attitude it reflects lives on, as depicted in the video above.   The video tells the story of Prof. James Miller, who was ordered to take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language, and then an anti-fascist poster on the same grounds.  He might have lost his job and suffered greatly in his career if the libertarian Foundation for Individual Freedom on Campus had not taken up his case.

You might argue such a restriction doesn’t matter.  You can have a full and free discussion of almost any issue without using violent language.  Or using language that is demeaning to women, gays, racial minorities or people with handicaps.   Or denying that the Holocaust occurred.  Or disrespecting the American flag.  Or exhibiting dirty or anti-Christian works of art in Museums.  Or mocking Mohammad.   Or making overly harsh criticisms of the state of Israel.   Or advocating revolution.  Or praising terrorism.   Or publishing representations of the Nazi swastika.  Or flying the Confederate battle flag.  But all these things add up.  And each restriction is a justification for imposing another and bigger one.

I believe in the “broken windows” approach to freedom of speech.  Sociologists have found that a vacant building may stand intact for weeks or months, but as soon as one window is broken, pretty soon all the windows will be broken.  So it is with freedom of speech and other basic Constitutional rights.

Click on Cracking the Speech Code for a good article on the rise and fall of the University of Wisconsin’s speech code in Reason magazine.

Click on PC Never Died for a good article on campus free speech also from Reason magazine.   As the writer points out, freedom of speech is not a left vs. right issue.  Principled conservatives opposed Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s.  Principled liberals opposed the campus speech codes in the 1990s and today.

I personally am not the kind of person who boasts of being “politically incorrect.”  I make a conscious effort to avoid saying or doing things that are needlessly insulting, demeaning or cruel, and to avoid joining in when others do so.  To my mind, this is, among other things, good manners.   I don’t think much is gained by trying to enforce good manners by handing down rules and regulations.  The best way to promote civility is to try to set an example.

Click on FIRE for the home page of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

[1]  Prof. Cronon did not claim there is anything wrong in itself for a state legislature to use model legislation drafted by a private group.  He only said that the public has a right to know who is drafting their laws.

Hat tip for the video to Virginia Prostel.

Who’s writing the laws?

March 31, 2011

William Cronon is an outstanding historian on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin.  I own two of his books, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Both made me see the relation of history to geography and the natural world in a new way.

William Cronon

Recently Prof. Cronon turned his attention to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislative program, and found some interesting things about where they’re coming from.  Among other things, he found that the laws of Wisconsin are being drafted by an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council. I never heard of it before, but evidently it has been drafting model legislation for conservative legislators for 40 years, and claims a good success rate in getting its ideas enacted into law.  Proposals such as Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting law don’t come out of nowhere.  They are part of a concerted nationwide effort.

As Cronon emphasizes, there is nothing wrong with people banding together to advance a political program they believe in.  The rise of the conservative movement in the United States in the past 50 years is a remarkable success story, and worthy of emulation by those of us who want to move the country in a different direction.  At the same time, I wonder why I never heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Cornon posted his findings on his new web log.  I won’t try to summarize his post.  Click on Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here) to read it.   I strongly recommend reading the post in its entirety.

Wisconsin’s Republicans haven’t taken Cronon’s writings lightly.  The Wisconsin Republican Party has used Wisconsin’s Open Records Law to subpoena any of Cronon’s messages on his university e-mail account that may relate to Republicans and politics; they won’t say why.  Click on A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin for the New York Times comment on this.

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