‘Hate or bias incidents do not necessarily violate the law or university policy,’ according to the updated university website
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee revised the language on its bias reporting page to clarify that students’ speech is protected by the First Amendment following a demand by a legal advocacy group.
The change to the stated protocol followed a demand letter sent by the nonprofit Southeastern Legal Foundation last October.
“We are glad that UWM recognized it was violating the First Amendment and updated its website accordingly,” said Cece O’Leary, who directs the foundation’s 1A Project, in a March 14 email to The College Fix. “Now, students can freely engage in speech activities on campus without constantly worrying that they will be investigated or punished.”
The university maintained a webpage in which students who have seen or experienced “an incident of hate or bias” were “encouraged” to report it to the Office of Equality/Diversity Services, according to the site.
The Office of Equity/Diversity Services would then “take action” in response to the report, an older version of the website stated, according to SLF’s letter.
“We are concerned that the policies infringe on students’ First Amendment rights because they allow officials to discriminate against the content and viewpoint of speech,” according to the SLF letter. “The policies also unconstitutionally chill freedom of expression because they allow anyone on campus to report students for perceived bias incidents.”
SLF demanded UWM dismantle the bias reporting system altogether or clarify that the right to free speech is protected on its campus and is not subject to investigation or punishment.
While UWM preserved its bias reporting system and Rapid Response Team, it revised its website.
The current “Hate/Bias” webpage, accessed March 20, includes a clarification stating the university is “legally bound” by the First Amendment as a public university, and even “hate speech” may be protected under law.
“Hate or bias incidents do not necessarily violate the law or university policy,” the website now states. “This is often misunderstood, but what people call ‘hate speech’ is protected by the First Amendment.”
“However, in those situations involving speech that is protected by the First Amendment and is not subject to sanction, UWM is committed to providing care and support to those impacted by hateful and offensive speech and expression through the hate/bias reporting process and the RRT,” it continued.
Legal foundation claims victory
“UWM acknowledged [its] error and corrected its website to explain that the University will abide by the First Amendment,” according to a SLF March 6 news release.
“Its website now clarifies that students who are reported for the words that they say—no matter how offensive they seem—will not be punished for the words that they say,” the release continued. “And, at SLF’s request, the University now provides a link to its free speech policy to ensure that students understand the full extent of their rights if they are reported for a bias incident.”
Southeastern Legal Foundation is “a national, nonprofit legal organization dedicated to defending liberty and Rebuilding the American Republic®,” according to its website.
O’Leary told The Fix that some students engaged in activism on campus following SLF’s demand letter to bring awareness to the problematic reporting system.
“Thanks to our united efforts, those students can now take full advantage of their college experience without fear of censorship,” she said.
“Bias reporting systems have become a tool to scare conservative students into silence because they are typically the ones engaging in open debate and discourse,” SLF General Counsel Kimberly Herman stated in its news release. “We are pleased that UWM has met its duty to protect the speech of every student on campus.”
SLF’s 1A Project sent 12 legal demand letters in total to universities across the nation in an effort to “stop America’s universities from silencing conservative and libertarian students,” its website stated.
The Fix twice emailed UWM representatives Olivia Hwang, vice chancellor for marketing and communications; Chia Youyee Vang, vice chancellor of diversity, equity and inclusion; and Jamie Cimpl-Wiemer, director of the Office of Equity/Diversity Services, to ask about any existing repercussions against students following a report under the bias reporting system, and their motive to revise their bias reporting system following the demand letter. No response was received.
In January, two other universities, Southern Utah University and the University of Maine, revised their bias response systems on their websites in response to demand letters sent from the Southeastern Legal Foundation, The Fix reported that month.
Southern Utah University had maintained a webpage titled “How do I Report an Issue?” with subheadings, “Bias Incident” according to The Fix. Following the letter that section is no longer included on the webpage.
The University of Maine updated its website “to clarify that it has no authority to punish students for exercising their freedom of speech. It further clarifies that students cannot even be investigated or questioned for a bias incident when the incident involves protected speech,” SLF foundation stated in a Dec. 13 news release.
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