Wisconsin Legislative Committee Threatens UW Faculty, Journalism Nonprofit

By June 6, 2013

Just before 6 a.m. yesterday morning, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) of the Wisconsin State Legislature voted 12–4 to add a motion to the proposed state budget that would kick the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) off the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison) campus and forbid UW employees from even working with the WCIJ. WCIJ executive director Andy Hall said that he was "blindsided" by this striking blow to academic freedom. If the motion is passed into law, it will unacceptably restrict the academic freedom and freedom of association rights of UW–Madison journalism faculty. 

For the past three years, UW–Madison has hosted WCIJ in two offices on campus, and WCIJ has provided UW journalism students with paid internships. Working with UW–Madison, WCIJ has produced award-winning journalism that the JFC has itself relied on in its decision-making. Yet the JFC approved the following motion yesterday morning:

Center for Investigative Journalism. Prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.

Representatives from both the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) at UW–Madison and WCIJ have spoken out about why the motion is irrational and harmful. SJMC Director Greg Downey wrote

The first provision seems to arbitrarily single out our collaborative arrangement with WCIJ …. There are plenty of other arrangements where outside organizations use UW space for activities, if such uses are deemed to be in the interests of our research, teaching, and/or service mission. This one was, and still is. 

The second provision is actually much more worrisome. As written it would seem to broadly and recklessly infringe on our academic freedom in terms of research, teaching, and service. Our faculty and staff regularly collaborate with outside organizations on media-related projects in terms of research, teaching, and service.

Downey observed that "the language provides no rationale for either provision." Inside Higher Ed‘s Lauren Ingeno pointed to WCIJ articles that may have resulted in State Rep. John Nygren, who introduced the motion, having a "beef with the center."

But whether Rep. Nygren has a personal vendetta against WCIJ or not, a total ban on UW–Madison faculty working with the WCIJ would be a gross violation of professors’ rights to make decisions about how they teach their students and conduct academic research.  Professors and past WCIJ interns have testified that the experience interns gain is critically important to their development as journalists. JFC’s motion should concern not only those associated with the school but all citizens who support academic freedom and a free press.

If passed by the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, the budget bill would then move on to Governor Scott Walker, who may sign it into law or veto it. FIRE will be watching closely for updates on the bill’s status. In the meantime, Wisconsin citizens can write their representatives and tell them to reject this brazen threat to academic freedom.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison Cases: Wisconsin: Bill to Forbid Professors from Working with Journalism Organization