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Campus guidelines help students exercise rights of free speech, expression

August 26, 2020 By Doug Erickson

UW–Madison believes strongly in the rights of free speech and expression and in the right to assemble for purposes of voicing differing opinions. The university has a storied history of student activism on issues of campus, national and international importance.

At the start of each academic year, university officials remind students of protest guidelines that will help keep them safe and in good standing as they exercise their constitutional rights. The guidelines, found in full here, have been updated to reflect measures necessitated by the global pandemic.

“As with most things in society and on our campus right now, COVID-19 brings with it added complications and considerations,” says Dean of Students Christina Olstad. “More than ever, we hope students will work with us to ensure that any protests, rallies or other mass gatherings can be undertaken with the health and safety of the participants at the forefront.”

All in-person gatherings on campus this academic year will need to abide by university policies related to COVID-19.

The university’s guidelines on protesting serve two purposes: they help individuals and groups plan for peaceful events, such as guest speakers, protests, counter-protests and demonstrations; and they provide students with behavior expectations as they participate in these campus activities.

The bottom line is that while protesting is fine, disrupting someone else’s free speech is not. Protests and demonstrations that impede or disrupt the academic mission, threaten research, interfere with the free speech of others, or threaten campus or personal safety will result in a prompt response to ensure compliance with UW–Madison’s rules.

UW–Madison’s protest guidelines explicitly state the institution’s expectations and provide practical examples of disruptive behaviors.

Examples of disruptive behavior include but are not limited to:

  • Blocking the vision of others in any manner (signs, props, a person’s body, etc.)
  • Using laser pointers
  • Turning off lights in the room
  • Setting off alarms on phones
  • Creating noise that interferes with events and activities
  • Inhibiting a virtual event from occurring as planned, such as by disrupting bandwidth, excessive comments, or not following moderator directions.
  • Not complying with public health directives issued by the campus, city, county or state.

The guidelines apply equally to all groups and points of view; the university enforces them in an objective, content-neutral manner.

Any student investigated for a possible violation will be afforded the rights and process outlined in the student nonacademic misconduct procedures of UWS Chapter 17 of the state administrative code that governs the UW System. Disciplinary actions related to a student’s status can include a written reprimand, probation, suspension or expulsion.

The university shares its protest guidelines during the fall semester with registered student organizations and provides opportunities for students to ask questions and learn more.

The university encourages individuals and groups that plan to use UW–Madison as a site for expressive activity to reach out to the Dean of Students Office at and/or the UW-Madison Police Department at for assistance in making the event successful and safe.