Chancellor’s Update: Balancing Free Speech and Civility

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Dear UWM Faculty, Staff and Students,
College campuses across the nation are being rocked by the unfathomable push and pull of free speech. Our campus is no exception. This week, one individual responded to an event in Spaights Plaza, held by Students Supporting Israel, by carrying a sign with a swastika, with the words “Free” and “Speech” written on the sign. Understandably, this provoked strong reactions from individuals who have expressed, among other feelings, concern, fear, anger, frustration, sadness and disbelief.

Under the First Amendment, displaying offensive symbols, such as a swastika, to a general audience in a public space is protected akin to speech. Nevertheless, please know that we emphatically renounce such hateful symbols and do not support or condone any viewpoint that is hurtful, harmful or disparaging. Where speech veers into harassment or threats, the university may be able to take action, but we cannot comment, based on FERPA, on any disciplinary investigation or action against any particular student. We take these issues seriously, and where student conduct violates our policies, we will take action. That said, we cannot always respond in a manner that is visible publicly and/or satisfying to those who are rightly offended or hurt by offensive and even hateful speech based on our legal obligations as a public university.

The UWM Police Chief met personally with the group Students Supporting Israel as activities began to unfold on Monday to ensure that they felt safe and supported and that their event was not hampered. Our Dean of Students Office in partnership with other areas of campus has been following up with individuals who attended the event to determine whether there was conduct beyond protected speech that constitutes a violation of our disciplinary standards.

As the most diverse campus in the state, we are committed to providing you with a safe, inclusive, equitable and respectful place to learn, work and engage. As we face hatred and intolerance, it is essential that we uphold our Guiding Values; especially those commitments to an open, safe and inclusive campus:

  • Diversity in all of its definitions, including who we are, how we think, and what we do.
  • Pride in our institution, our unique qualities, and our vital role.
  • A caring, compassionate, and collegial community characterized by mutual respect and safety. 
That being said, we are a large, urban public university that will always be a forum for the free exchange of ideas – even when those ideas are hateful or repugnant and challenge our thinking in dreadfully unsettling ways. We have a responsibility as a public university to educate people on what can seem to be an insurmountable distance between the right of free speech and civility. No doubt there will be future opportunities and challenges in this arena.

Best regards,

Mark A. Mone
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee