Faculty Senate debates speech code

December 9, 1998

Not a good idea. That’s the consensus among professors from across the campus who spoke out against a proposed speech code at Monday’s Faculty Senate meeting.

For further reading:
Speech code committee documents

Members of the ad hoc committee that drafted the majority position say their measure would protect academic freedom, and the University Committee supports that approach.

But most faculty who spoke opposed the majority version. Some supported a minority version that would enact fewer restrictions than the majority report. And others at the meeting called for the 17-year-old code’s repeal.

“The fundamental issue is when someone is threatened with punishment. That is coercion,” says Lester Hunt, professor of philosophy and one of the faculty members who pressed for review of the current code.

“How many complaints have there been?” asked Kenneth Mayer, associate professor of political science. “I remain unconvinced that this [code] is needed at all.”

Monday’s discussion was the beginning of the Faculty Senate’s consideration to revise the existing prohibited harassment faculty legislation. Discussion will continue Feb. 1. The Senate could vote on the measure as early as February or perhaps in March.

Whatever action the Faculty Senate takes, it very well could be a bellwether for America’s colleges and universities. Many institutions are watching what happens at UW–Madison, in part because the university adopted the nation’s first faculty speech code in 1981. No professor has ever been formally punished under UW–Madison’s code, although a few have been investigated informally.

The majority and minority speech code proposals specifically endorse academic freedom, and they say that educational ideas presented in the classroom should be protected, however unpopular or insensitive they may be. However, it’s when instructors “debase or derogate” students or groups without any reasonable educational purpose based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability that the code would apply, the committee says.

The majority and minority sides split on when to apply the code, with intent the central issue. The minority side argues that intent must be proven, while the majority side says harmful speech should be prohibited, whether intended or not.

Charles Cohen, professor of history and speech code committee member, says the majority proposal should be supported because it “builds an ethical code on the basis of academic freedom.”

“The majority report would protect professor expression and student response,” Cohen says.

Robert Drechsel, professor of journalism and mass communication and chair of the speech code committee, presented the minority position. He says it offers more clarity and less censorship than the majority report. The three students on the speech code committee also support the minority report and urged the Faculty Senate to adopt it.

“Discipline must be reserved for the most egregious cases,” Drechsel says.

The University Committee supports the majority position, with a minor revision to clarify its language, and asserts that a speech code policy is legally necessary.

“We think the majority position gives the greatest protection to UW faculty and staff among all options discussed and are available,” says Stephen Robinson, chair of the University Committee and professor of industrial engineering and computer science.