Chancellor’s Update: Free Speech this Election Year

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Dear UWM Students, Faculty and Staff,

Welcome to 2020! I hope your holidays were enjoyable and heartening. At my house, I was guilty of having a few too many cookies and other treats (offset, thankfully, with a little exercise).

As we begin to focus in on what a new decade might bring, there is no doubt that the 2020 presidential election will have impact in Milwaukee and around the globe and I know many of you have questions about how this will affect UWM.

The January 14 rally for President Trump and the July 13-16 Democratic National Convention are major events being held downtown and each will provoke lively discussion. Both events will be held, at least in part, at the UWM Panther Arena. Neither is being hosted by UW-Milwaukee. As of 2014, UWM acquired naming rights for the venue. However, it is not a UWM owned or controlled facility. Outside of men’s basketball games and Commencement ceremonies, we do not schedule or sponsor the multitude of events that take place at the arena, from hockey games to concerts and various speakers.

Meanwhile, our own campus has historically been the site of several presidential candidate visits and will again in the future. We anticipate that this election year will bring requests from student and other groups to host various candidates and perspectives on our campus.

UWM does not endorse or promote any political candidates or speakers, even when invited by campus groups or student organizations. As a public university, we do not restrict the use of our facilities based on the content of any individual or entity’s message. Such viewpoint neutrality is consistent with our commitment to free speech and academic freedom and is legally required of us as a public entity.

I have frequently spoken about our unwavering commitment to your safety, inclusivity, equity and respect. We are proud that we educate the most diverse population of any campus in the state with more under-represented minority students and veterans than any other Wisconsin campus. Our campus community is further enriched by our first-generation, LGBT+, and non-traditional students. Diversity is further enhanced by critical conversations that can help others see life through their fellow human beings’ lens.

Our diversity is also vital in creating an environment that welcomes and encourages the open exchange of ideas and civil, intellectual challenge. This free expression will at times be logical and at other times, highly emotional. Most of us cherish the right to say what’s on our minds. At the same time, each of us is – and will continue to be – confronted with hostile speech and words that challenge our sense of morality and justice. This type of speech is also a right and is protected by the First Amendment.

As a public university, we will always be a forum for the free exchange of ideas, even when those ideas are offensive or repugnant. We also recognize the monumental difference between the right of free speech versus the use of violence or other illegal actions to silence, intimidate or hurt others.

In the months leading up to the November election, we will undoubtedly be faced with choices about how we communicate in a society with heightened divisiveness and limited openness to opposing ideas. Our logic and emotions will be tested. This is as it should be at a public university. We have the unique opportunity – and responsibility – to educate people to question ideas, to rise above senseless hatred, and to model empathy, awareness and engagement when encountering views different than our own.

Last May, I wrote about our need to take a more proactive approach to reconcile freedom of expression with the fear, damage and unrest that often accompany such expression. This is not an easy thing to do. Our campus-wide Care, Respect and Expression Task Force took up this important work last semester and has since provided recommendations. I am reviewing those this week with co-leaders Dr. Joan Prince, Vice Chancellor of Global Inclusion & Engagement, and Kelly Haag, Chief Student Affairs Officer. Plans are underway for sharing this more widely with all of you.

I very much look forward to engaging with you all as we embark on this new decade.

Best regards,

Mark A. Mone
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee