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Our dual commitments to free speech and creating a welcoming campus environment

October 25, 2022

On Monday, Oct. 24, commentator Matt Walsh held a film screening and speaking event in Memorial Union on the UW–Madison campus. The speaker was invited by a registered student organization with co-sponsorship by an academic unit, following all required university procedures for student events.

The events took place as planned, allowing the speaker to engage with those who chose to attend – both those sympathetic to his views and those who strongly disagreed.  This is precisely what should happen at a university, where we are deeply committed both by law and our values to free speech and academic freedom.  We are also deeply committed to our values of equity, inclusion, and belonging for all in our community, and understand these commitments can sometimes be in tension.

Many on our campus and in the community do not agree with the speaker’s perspective, and a robust protest took place outside the venue.  We are grateful that our community largely responded to a controversial speaker in a manner fully aligned with our commitment to free speech and the First Amendment. Many chose to attend the event, including both those who supported the speaker’s perspective and those who did not; others chose to attend a counter-event held at the same time. Still others elected to protest in ways that did not interfere with the event.  The right to protest is also an important element of the right of free speech, so long as the protest takes place in appropriate ways that do not interfere with a speaker’s chance to share their message or for others to hear it.

We note that we remain deeply disappointed that some individuals chose to deface campus property through extensive graffiti related to the speaker’s appearance on campus. Those actions—which range far beyond permitted freedom of expression and amount to criminal damage—cannot be tolerated and are under investigation by the UWPD.

In the wake of this visit, it is worth reiterating that the presence of any specific speaker on campus is not an endorsement of their views; that is, quite simply, not the institution’s role. Rather, consistent with both our commitments and legal obligations to the First Amendment, we provide a venue where the free exchange and vigorous debate of ideas can take place.

At the same time, we are committed to equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging, as well as individual flourishing. We recognize the impact that speakers and events can have on members of our community, and we seek to provide resources and support to those who may be affected.  Our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and faculty are valued and important members of our campus community and we support every individual’s ability to define their gender identity as they choose.

We also recognize that our core institutional values––which include the right to free speech as well as a deep commitment to fostering equity, inclusion and belonging—can sometimes feel at odds.  Yet both are critical to our core missions as a university, and we must strive to achieve both.

Indeed, it is only through doing both – engaging a very broad array of perspectives through our tradition of sifting and winnowing, and working to create an inclusive and welcoming campus environment – that we can better pursue both knowledge and truth.