Sunday, March 24, 2019

UW Oshkosh campus is struggling to balance concepts of free speech, safe space after campaign incident

Photo by Miles Maguire

Hundreds of students gathered at UW Oshkosh to describe their experiences with various forms of campus bias.

By Miles Maguire

Last October the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh commemorated the 50th anniversary of Black Thursday, a low point in race relations on campus when 94 black students were arrested after occupying offices in the school’s main administration building. The subsequent expulsion of most of them left a lasting impression of Oshkosh as an unwelcoming environment for minorities.

Over the years the school has worked to change its reputation and by some measures has made significant progress. At its February meeting, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents honored UW Oshkosh with a special diversity award for an initiative to attract more students from underrepresented groups. The school was cited for boosting enrollment among students of color by more than 4 percentage points from 2013 to 2018.

But on March 18 roughly 200 students filled the ballroom in Reeve Student Union to call out the school and its leaders for “homophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination on campus and in our community.” After hearing from roughly two dozen students and staff, who described violence and threats of violence but also some encouraging signs of progress, the four student organizers presented a list of demands for the university to address.

Looking them over, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt acknowledged that many of the demands were similar to the ones that students had made 50 years ago as part of the Black Thursday demonstration, including hiring more faculty and staff from minority groups and changing the curriculum to foster a sense of inclusion.

The new list of demands and the open forum to discuss campus climate came about in response to an incident in which a derogatory statement about student government candidates was posted on social media. According to multiple accounts, the statement read, “UWO Vote for these guys unless you want a lesbian or hmong to win.”

The words were superimposed on a picture of two white males who were running for office--and who went on to win the election, according to preliminary results.

All six of the students running for the top positions in the Oshkosh Student Association issued a joint statement decrying the social media message. “We all commit to standing together today to acknowledge that our campus has racism and homophobia among many other issues,” the statement said.

One of the candidates, Alicia Obermeier, said she had to withdraw from a different university because of sexual harassment and had been reluctant to be identified as lesbian in part because of concerns about her future employability.

“In over 20 states in the United States, I can get fired for my sexuality alone,” she said. “Now that I am out to the world, my name is now attached to this. That puts me at risk. That puts my safety at risk.”

Federal statistics show only half a dozen hate crimes reported on the UW Oshkosh campus over a recent three-year period--with the most common being vandalism and destruction of property. But speakers at the open forum said these numbers vastly understate the degree to which minority students are subject to bias and harassment.

Among the students’ demands is that the university expand its reporting of bias incidents, which may include verbal abuse or other acts motivated by intolerance but not rising to the level of a crime. The students want to see timely notification when a bias event occurs, an annual accounting of the university’s responses to such incidents and an email to students each semester describing how to report problems when they occur.

At the top of list of student demands was a call to “hold individual responsible,” referring to the student who posted the offending message on social media. The student’s identity is widely known on campus, and the school is conducting an investigation.

But responding to the incident will take the university into a murky area where the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech comes up against a university policy of promoting an environment “free from … harassment, disruption and intimidation.”

As recently as 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that offensive language, even hate speech, enjoys constitutional protection. The ruling referred specifically to “speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability or any other similar ground.”

“Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend,” the court said on behalf of an Asian-American band called The Slants. The group had gone to court to win trademark protection for its name, which the federal government had blocked on the grounds that the term was a racial slur.

Leavitt said there is not much the university can do about the student exercising his First Amendment right to express an opinion about a candidate for office. But “what we want to do is carefully assess what has happened to see if other policies may have been violated,” the chancellor said.

Leavitt said his focus is on “where free speech and safe spaces intersect on college campuses.”

People should be able “to challenge conservative or liberal ideologies in a mixed group,” he said. “It just has to be done in such a way that you are not targeting an individual and accusing them based on that attribute [that is perceived to be a] defect,” he said.

Leavitt’s goal is “to create the kind of institution where a person can come and be themselves and feel safe in being themselves but still be able to engage on controversial issues where it is not necessarily about their identity.”

At UW Oshkosh it is not just minority students who say they do not feel comfortable speaking out. Because many undergraduates and instructors hold progressive views, conservative-leaning students sometimes say they feel silenced in the classroom.

“All of us have to be for the free exchange of ideas,” Leavitt said. “It’s when free speech crosses over into denigrating people or groups of people based upon their identity alone I think is a problem.”

At an educational institution, discussions should occur in the “context of a teachable moment and not just a forum to espouse one’s views on something,” Leavitt said. “That is not what teaching is about,” he said.

“Historically when people talk about political correctness and free speech, what they mean is being able to have license to ... denigrate somebody based on their personal identity and believe that is OK,” Leavitt said.

“That’s where I feel I have to step in as the chancellor of the institution,” he said.

The question of how to apply the First Amendment on campus attracted national attention last week when President Donald Trump weighed in on the issue. On March 20 he signed an executive order on free speech directed at college administrators and warning them of the potential consequences of imposing restrictions.

“Under the guise of ‘speech codes’ and ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings,’ these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today,” Trump said at a White House ceremony.

“All of that changes starting right now,” he added. “Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions.”

The text of the executive order, however, does not contain language that specifies how current practices would change.

The student who made the post has been publicly rebuked, but not by the university. In a statement published on its Facebook page, the UW Oshkosh College Republicans said they had kicked him out of their organization.

“Oshkosh College Republicans have zero tolerance for racism, bigotry and any form of discrimination,” the group said. Members “are in full support of him facing the greatest consequences.”

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