The Washington Post

The Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Mil­wau­kee is one of the lat­est schools fac­ing a freespeech im­broglio.

In Mil­wau­kee, de­bate rages af­ter a stu­dent held a sign with a swastika

- BY FREDRICK KUNKLE fredrick.kunkle@wash­ Society · College · Freedom of Speech · Higher Education · Human Rights · Wisconsin · Milwaukee · University of Wisconsin–Madison · Israel · Tennessee · Congress of the United States · United States of America · New Jersey · Donald Trump · U.S. Supreme Court · Facebook · First Amendment · University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee · Knoxville · Milo Yiannopoulos · Freedom Forum

Joel Berkowitz was out­raged when a Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Mil­wau­kee stu­dent held a sign bear­ing a swastika and a hate­ful mes­sage di­rected at stu­dents cel­e­brat­ing Is­rael’s in­de­pen­dence: “Gas,” the sign said.

But Berkowitz, who runs the school’s Sam and Helen Stahl Cen­ter for Jewish Stud­ies, was also an­gered with the univer­sity’s re­sponse. He felt a state­ment from the school’s chan­cel­lor, Mark Mone, de­fend­ing the stu­dent’s right to free speech failed to con­demn strongly enough the hate­ful mes­sage.

“The Univer­sity’s ini­tial re­sponse was shock­ingly weak,” Berkowitz wrote on his cam­pus blog.

And so be­gan a con­ver­sa­tion, in pri­vate and in pub­lic, with echoes on col­lege cam­puses through­out the na­tion. Col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors are search­ing for ways to bal­ance First Amend­ment rights with the right of stu­dents and fac­ulty to feel se­cure. They’re not al­ways find­ing the right mix.

“They weren’t even de­nounc­ing a swastika in the mid­dle of cam­pus,” Berkowitz said in an in­ter­view.

Yet Berkowitz, whose fam­ily in­cludes Holo­caust vic­tims and sur­vivors, ac­knowl­edged the dif­fi­culty hon­or­ing the prin­ci­ples of open dis­course and re­spect­ing dis­sent that pushes the lim­its of de­cency. Shouldn’t lim­its be placed on speech so re­pug­nant — gas the Jews — that it im­plies a threat of vi­o­lence, he won­ders?

“No one that I’m talk­ing to is say­ing that we should ride roughshod over the First Amend­ment,” Berkowitz said. “But there are dis­cus­sions about what are the lim­its of free speech. They are not ab­so­lute.”

The univer­sity’s chan­cel­lor has is­sued two pub­lic state­ments since the May 6 protest, while more than 1,400 peo­ple have signed an on­line pe­ti­tion urg­ing the school to ex­pel the sign-hold­ing stu­dent. Ef­forts to reach that stu­dent for com­ment through email and so­cial me­dia ac­counts were not suc­cess­ful.

“What [the stu­dent] did was not just an ex­pres­sion of speech,” the pe­ti­tion says. “. . . It’s in­cite­ment of vi­o­lence against the Jewish com­mu­nity on cam­pus.”

Univer­sity of­fi­cials have promised cam­puswide ef­forts to en­gage stu­dents in fur­ther dis­cus­sion on free speech rights and con­struc­tive ways to re­spond to deeply of­fen­sive opin­ions.

“That’s our role: It’s to help stu­dents de­velop skills and have re­sources to help with civil dis­course,” Vice Chan­cel­lor Joan Prince said. “They will leave us and go into the world where this kind of in­ci­dent will prob­a­bly hap­pen again.”

How to deal with provoca­tive speech is a ques­tion chal­leng­ing other cam­puses, too. At the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Knoxville re­cently, more than 100 pro­test­ers greeted Rick Tyler, a white na­tion­al­ist who ran for Congress two years ago un­der the slo­gan “Make Amer­ica White Again.” They out­num­bered at­ten­dees by about 10 to 1, the Knoxville News Sentinel re­ported.

Last month, ad­min­is­tra­tors at sev­eral New Jersey in­sti­tu­tions con­demned a video on so­cial me­dia de­pict­ing stu­dents who at­tend col­lege in the state ut­ter­ing a racial slur. Rowan Univer­sity of­fi­cials heard that one of the stu­dents was theirs and told him they wanted to speak with him but learned the stu­dent wasn’t re­turn­ing to cam­pus, spokesman Joe Car­dona said.

“We didn’t even have a con­ver­sa­tion with him,” Car­dona said.

But Car­dona also ac­knowl­edged it’s not clear what, if any ac­tion, the school might have taken.

“It’s dif­fi­cult, it’s chal­leng­ing and it’s un­com­fort­able be­cause you’re on a fine line, es­pe­cially at a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion,” Car­dona said. “There’s free­dom of speech, but that doesn’t mean free­dom of not be­ing chal­lenged.”

State leg­is­la­tures have en­acted mea­sures to pro­tect free speech on cam­pus, while Pres­i­dent Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der in March pro­tect­ing free­dom of speech on col­lege cam­puses. The or­der was wel­comed by those who say uni­ver­si­ties have cre­ated a po­lit­i­cally cor­rect at­mos­phere that fa­vors lib­eral views but crit­i­cized by those who say cam­puses re­main open to vig­or­ous de­bate from all sides.

The Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Mil­wau­kee has en­dured up­heaval be­fore over of­fen­sive speech. In 2016, alt-right provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los brought his na­tional tour to cam­pus and ridiculed a trans­gen­der stu­dent by name. The episode led to protests and soul-search­ing at the pub­lic univer­sity, where peo­ple of color make up about onethird of the stu­dent body.

Fol­low­ing Yiannopou­los’s visit, univer­sity of­fi­cials opened dis­cus­sions with stu­dents about free speech, and stu­dents cre­ated new cur­ricu­lums on the topic. Univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors sought to ex­plain that the school is lim­ited in ad­dress­ing of­fen­sive speech. As a state school, the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Mil­wau­kee is bound by laws and Supreme Court rul­ings that per­mit the school to reg­u­late the time, man­ner and place of pub­lic speech but not its con­tent.

“You run into trou­ble when you try to reg­u­late who’s speak­ing at a pub­lic fo­rum based on what they have to say,” said Lata Nott, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter at the Free­dom Fo­rum In­sti­tute. “That’s view­point dis­crim­i­na­tion. That’s nearly al­ways un­con­sti­tu­tional.”

Al­though some sur­veys sug­gest that to­day’s stu­dents are more re­cep­tive to lim­its on speech deemed hate­ful or threat­en­ing, Nott said she be­lieves peo­ple of all ages tend to em­brace the First Amend­ment more in the ab­stract than in prac­tice.

“Peo­ple like it in the­ory be­cause it’s nice in the­ory,” Nott said. “But, gen­er­ally, when it comes up, it’s with ab­hor­rent speech, and it’s hard to think that ap­plies to speech you find re­pul­sive.”

The May 6 in­ci­dent on the Mil­wau­kee cam­pus be­gan when stu­dents or­ga­nized a rally mark­ing Is­rael’s in­de­pen­dence, and a stu­dent ap­peared with a sign show­ing a swastika. Calls for dis­ci­plinary ac­tion against the stu­dent, in­clud­ing ex­pul­sion, started soon af­ter, and Mone is­sued his first state­ment the fol­low­ing day.

“Un­der the First Amend­ment, dis­play­ing of­fen­sive sym­bols, such as a swastika, to a gen­eral au­di­ence in a pub­lic space is pro­tected akin to speech,” Mone wrote. “Nev­er­the­less, please know that we em­phat­i­cally re­nounce such hate­ful sym­bols and do not sup­port or con­done any view­point that is hurt­ful, harm­ful or dis­parag­ing.”

For some, the chan­cel­lor’s words made things worse. Mone apol­o­gized and ac­knowl­edged that his first state­ment had fallen short.

“Please know I have heard you and ac­knowl­edge my mes­sage did not fully cap­ture or re­flect how deeply sad­dened, frus­trated and an­gry I am per­son­ally, as a mem­ber of this com­mu­nity, that any­one would in­flict such pain and fear on our Pan­ther fam­ily,” he wrote. “I strongly con­demn the swastika and other mes­sag­ing that it con­tained for what it is — hate­ful, anti-Semitic and an affront to our Univer­sity’s val­ues and ded­i­ca­tion to in­clu­siv­ity and di­ver­sity.”

Mone de­clined to com­ment. Other univer­sity of­fi­cials, cit­ing pri­vacy laws, wouldn’t say whether dis­ci­plinary ac­tion had been taken against the stu­dent. But as the con­tro­versy spread, stu­dents and mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity crit­i­cized the univer­sity’s ap­par­ent lack of ac­tion.

“How evil! He should be ar­rested!” a com­menter wrote on Artists 4 Is­rael’s Face­book page.

Some re­sponded with strong lan­guage of their own.

“Of course, there’s al­ways an al­ter­na­tive re­source that’s also avail­able on- and off-cam­pus, which em­ploys a blanket, three hefty in­di­vid­u­als and a base­ball bat,” read an ar­ti­cle on JewishPres­, an on­line site for the largest weekly Jewish news­pa­per in the United States.

Berkowitz said the school’s re­sponse should in­clude es­tab­lish­ing a for­mal process to de­ter­mine whether a univer­sity mem­ber should be pe­nal­ized for hate­ful speech that shades to­ward a threat, as he be­lieves oc­curred here.

“Just be­cause you have the right to say some­thing un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion doesn’t mean you can do what­ever you want. There can be other kinds of poli­cies in place,” Berkowitz said.

And yet Berkowitz is also deeply wary of vi­o­lat­ing prin­ci­ples of aca­demic free­dom or free speech rights as en­shrined in the Con­sti­tu­tion — prin­ci­ples of­ten in tension.

“In my ap­proach to th­ese things and as a de­scen­dant of vic­tims of the Nazis and sur­vivors of the Nazis, you might think that I would think, ‘Well, let’s just ban it all and any­one who ex­presses that stuff, let’s just throw them in prison,’ ” Berkowitz said. “[But] at the end of the day, I find my­self be­ing very Amer­i­can . . . . There’s some­thing to be said for let­ting ev­ery­thing be let out in the light of day in­stead of driv­ing it un­der­ground. But at the same time, we’re in very strange times.”

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 ?? BEN MARGOT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? A 2017 ap­pear­ance by alt-right provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley was can­celed af­ter protests on cam­pus, above. The year be­fore, Yiannopou­los had drawn con­tro­versy dur­ing a talk at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Mil­wau­kee, be­low.
BEN MARGOT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS A 2017 ap­pear­ance by alt-right provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley was can­celed af­ter protests on cam­pus, above. The year be­fore, Yiannopou­los had drawn con­tro­versy dur­ing a talk at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Mil­wau­kee, be­low.

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