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Civil discourse and free speech

A page within Chancellor

Freedom of Speech and the Educational Mission

The mission of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is to provide “a challenging, dynamic, and diverse learning environment in which the entire university community is fully engaged in supporting student success.” In pursuit of this mission, UWL encourages and protects diverse perspectives, the free flow of ideas, and open discussion among students, faculty, staff, and other members of the campus community. Constructive engagement with differing perspectives in a climate of free inquiry is essential to the pursuit of knowledge. UWL is committed to providing all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.

Encountering new, different or opposing perspectives can be challenging and uncomfortable; this is a necessary feature of the UWL educational experience. Thus, all members of the campus community are encouraged to engage with diverse viewpoints in a manner that affirms our community and furthers our mission, to be thoughtful when participating in the exchange of ideas, and to hold themselves accountable for the impact of their expression on others.

Freedom of Expression in an Inclusive Community

While the University refrains from restricting the exchange of ideas—even ideas that are offensive, disagreeable, or even hateful—this does not mean that the University condones, supports or agrees with all ideas expressed. Statements that demean and exclude members of the campus community are contrary to our core values of “diversity, equity, and the inclusion and engagement of all people in a safe campus climate that embraces and respects the innumerable different perspectives found within an increasingly integrated and culturally diverse global community.” If we fail to fully include people of all backgrounds and identities, we will fail in our mission of providing a truly dynamic and diverse learning environment for all.

Classroom Discourse

This includes classroom discussions, when the issues are germane to the curriculum. Faculty are encouraged to engage with their students on current events and controversial issues in a manner that is designed to facilitate critical thinking, evaluate competing viewpoints and perspectives, and further the educational aims of the university. The university is committed to supporting the development and practice of inclusive and critical pedagogical skills in order to further this goal.

Prohibited Conduct

Furthermore, UWL policy prohibits certain conduct, including: harassment, intimidation, disruption of classes or other university activities, and discrimination based on race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. Appropriate action will be taken to prevent and respond to such misconduct.

But even if a bigoted or hostile statement falls under the umbrella of free speech and is not subject to disciplinary sanction, no person is ever exempt from being criticized for the error of their ideas or for the odious nature of their expression. Every member of the campus community has the right to speak out in response to ideas they find offensive or harmful. This is part of the robust and vigorous public debate which is the central purpose of the University.

Universities of Wisconsin

  • Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship & Civil Dialogue (WICCD)
    • WICCD provides resources, opportunities, and support for teaching, learning, and practicing viewpoint diversity; freedom of expression; academic freedom; civil dialogue; and civic participation within our universities and communities.
  • Board of Regents Policy
    • The Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents Policy Document 4-21, “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression” applies to all UW System students, employees, and visitors. This policy contains provisions addressing “violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupt[s] the free expression of others.”

Joint Committee on Civil Discourse

The UWL Joint Committee on Civil Discourse (JCCD) offers programming for the campus that promotes awareness of the values of free speech and academic freedom.

Portions of this page were adapted from the University of Chicago Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression and the Drake University Policy on Community, Diversity, and Freedom of Expression.

UWL does not endorse any political candidate, and employees are prohibited from engaging in political campaign activity on work time or using state resources. With these limitations in mind, members of the campus community can and should engage constructively with the important issues facing our state, country, and world.

Guidance on political campaign activities at UW System institutions

  • Classroom discussions: When course content is related to current events or public policy issues, we encourage instructors to engage with these issues constructively in the classroom, demonstrating academically rigorous analysis of the issues and prompting students to engage with different viewpoints in order to further the educational goals of the course. Instructors are encouraged to conduct themselves in the spirit of the American Association of University Professors' statement on Academic Freedom, which states, "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."
  • Employees may not engage in “political campaign activities” on work time or using state resources (see policy above).
    • Employees may not solicit contributions or services for a political purpose from other university employees while engaged in official duties.
    • Employees are not prohibited from engaging in any political activity as a private citizen, on their own time and with their own resources.
  • Candidates: UWL may host candidate visits/speeches, as part of relevant coursework, or as freestanding events, in keeping with our mission to provide a forum for diverse viewpoints. This does not mean that UWL endorses any particular candidate.
    • Private or student-run political organizations have the same rights to hold events on campus as would any other similarly-situated organization, provided no political fundraising takes place in state-owned buildings.
  • Fundraising: Political fundraising is prohibited in state-owned buildings. Segregated fees may not be used to make any gift, donation, or contribution to a political campaign.
  • State resources will not be used to engage in political activities at any time (e.g. supplies, equipment, machinery, or vehicles)
  • Outdoor public areas on campus are a public forum for anyone to express their views and distribute materials, including those of a partisan political nature. However, university policies still apply, including policies on harassment and other behaviors that interfere with the rights of others or with university operations.


The Campus as a Public Forum

As a state university, our campus grounds are generally open to the public, including those who may wish to use our public spaces a forum to express their views. The State of Wisconsin has statutes that guide conduct on university land. While UWL does not limit the exchange of ideas—even ideas that some may consider offensive, disagreeable, or even hateful—this does not mean that the University condones, supports, or agrees with all ideas expressed. Employees on duty are expected to conduct themselves and express themselves in a manner that is non-disruptive to their colleagues and consistent with the mission of their department/unit and the university.

Invited Guests

As a public university, UWL is committed to educational experiences within and outside the classroom that enhance the learning opportunities for students and the campus community. To that end, a wide variety of guest speakers are invited to campus by university organizations, students, staff, and faculty. These speakers do not necessarily speak for the university, and the university does not necessarily endorse all of their viewpoints.

Uninvited visitors

As a state university, our campus grounds are generally open to the public, including those who may wish to use our public spaces a forum to express their views. Social media also provides forums for people to express themselves. While we do not limit the exchange of ideas—even ideas that some may consider offensive, disagreeable, or even hateful—so long as all individuals comply with with campus policies and procedures (most notably Chapter UWS 18 Conduct on University Land; UWS 18.11 Offenses against public peace and order;  (4) Picketing, Rallies, Parades, Demonstrations and Other Assemblies).  However, this does not mean that the University condones, supports, or agrees with all ideas expressed. Occasionally, the controversial or offensive expression creates a reaction in the campus community that may indicate a need for a campus response.  As a campus committed to free speech, our protocol is intended to help campus personnel provide guidance to the Chancellor on appropriate follow-up to these incidents.

Social media

UWL’s official social media communications practices abide by the UWL Social Media Policy.

UWL & UW System Academic Freedom Statements 

UWL Statement Regarding Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is fundamental to the mission common to higher education of fostering inquiry and increasing the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Academic freedom is the freedom to discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions regarding all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to reach conclusions according to one’s scholarly discernment. It also includes the right to speak or write – as a private citizen or within the context of one’s activities as an employee of the university – without institutional discipline or restraint on matters of public concern as well as on matters related to professional duties, the functioning of the university, and university positions and policies. Academic responsibility implies the faithful performance of professional duties and obligations, the recognition of the demands of the scholarly enterprise, and the candor to make it clear that when one is speaking on matters of public interest or concern, one is speaking on behalf of oneself, not the institution. (Approved by Faculty Senate 1-28-2016)

UW System Statement Regarding Academic Freedom

Face-to-Face & Online Conversations Among Individuals with Different Perspectives

Research from the National Institute for Civil Discourse

indicates that both offline and online, Americans tend to discuss political topics with people with whom they already agree. The internet makes it easier for us to connect with others with similar political views. However, online forums may also increase exposure to a greater variety of reasoning and information.   
Individuals who seriously engage in civil discourse:

  • undertake a serious exchange of views;
  • focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them;
  • defend their interpretations using verified information;
  • thoughtfully listen to what others say;
  • seek the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose;
  • embody open-mindedness and a willingness change their minds;
  • assume they will need to compromise and are willing to do so;
  • treat the ideas of others with respect;
  • avoid violence (physical, emotional, and verbal). 

Responding to Classroom Incivility

Classroom Discussions about Challenging Topics

Resources for Students/Faculty/Staff Who Experience an Unwelcoming Climate at UWL

The First Amendment and UWL promote the free expression of ideas. Individuals can respond to others' free speech in many ways, including:

  • Through civil discourse (see above).
  • Respond to free speech with free speech - create alternative messages, peaceful counter protests, etc.
  • Take alternate routes around the activities. Sometimes the quickest way to deescalate a situation is through avoidance.
  • Speak to UWL faculty, staff, or units about developing in or out of class programming and/or training opportunities related to civil and educational discourse associated with topics of interest to you.
  • If you or another individual feel targeted, we encourage seeking appropriate services. Student Life, Center for Transformative Justice, and/or Counseling Services all can serve as a first point of contact.

Additional resources are available at the Center for Transformative Justice website.

First Amendment Law and the Public Forum

National legal discussions of public forums and speech have adopted expanded ideas of public forums, sometimes referred to as “speech plus.”  Forums can range from traditional public forums such as public areas like parks and sidewalks where speakers have strong First Amendment protections, to limited forums where some limitations can be placed on the types of activities to nonpublic forums such as an organization’s internal email system where the focus is on allowing for expression that is consistent with the context and setting. Most law protects individuals from discrimination based on their viewpoints but may limit when and where and how they express these viewpoints.