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Know before you go: Campus policies on free speech and protests

August 28, 2019

UW–Madison has a long history of vigorous debate on controversial topics — it’s a valued part of the institution’s legacy.

As the new academic year gets underway, university officials are reminding students of guidelines that will help keep them safe and in good standing as they exercise their rights to free speech and free expression.

Bottom line: Protesting is fine, disrupting others’ free speech and interfering with campus operations is not. The university enforces these guidelines in an objective, non-partisan manner and they apply equally to all groups and points of view.

To help students negotiate this terrain, UW–Madison publishes protest guidelines. The document has two purposes: It helps individuals and groups plan for peaceful events, such as guest speakers, protests, counter-protests and demonstrations; and it provides students with behavior expectations as they participate in these campus activities.

This effort has taken on added importance following action by the Board of Regents in the fall of 2017. While reiterating its support for free speech and academic freedom, the board mandated that all UW System campuses discipline students who repeatedly disrupt the free expression of others.

The policy requires suspension for a student who has twice been found responsible for disrupting freedom of expression. A third offense requires expulsion.

The policy allows institutions discretion in establishing a definition for disruption. UW–Madison’s guidelines explicitly state the institution’s expectations and provide practical examples of likely disruptive and non-disruptive behaviors, some of which follow.

Examples of likely disruptive behavior:

  • Acting violently or threatening violence against people or property
  • Intruding upon a private office or entering a room or meeting space without approval
  • Intentionally blocking entrances, stairwells or corridors
  • Blocking the vision of others in any manner (signs, props, a person’s body, etc.)
  • Creating noise that interferes with events and activities
  • Carrying signs when an event doesn’t permit them

Examples of likely non-disruptive behavior:

  • Silently protesting a speaker by attending an event with duct tape over one’s mouth or wearing clothes with words or pictures
  • Holding a small poster in front of one’s person if an event allows signs
  • Carrying props or wearing a costume, assuming they are allowed at the event and don’t block anyone’s view or ability to hear.
  • Engaging with a speaker if the speaker welcomes the interaction

The Board of Regents policy applies to all university-run or university-authorized activities, including any event held in a venue approved through the formal campus facilities reservation process. A student at risk of violating the policy may be warned before action is taken, though a warning is not required.

If a student is investigated for a possible violation, the student will be afforded the rights and process outlined in the student nonacademic misconduct procedures of Chapter 17 of the state administrative code provisions that govern the UW System.

The university will share these policies during the fall semester with registered student organizations and will provide opportunities for students to ask questions and learn more.

For additional information, contact the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards at 608-263-5700 or the UW–Madison Police Department at 608-264-2677.