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U. of Wisconsin Regents Revise Systemwide Speech Code

There is very good news for free speech at Wisconsin’s public universities: The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has revised a system-wide discriminatory harassment policy that previously contained language declared unconstitutional by a federal court.

In April of this year, FIRE and two groups of University of Wisconsin (UW) faculty wrote to the Board of Regents urging them to reform Board of Regents Policy 14-6, which at the time was titled “Racist and Discriminatory Conduct.” That policy directed Wisconsin’s public universities to adopt policies against discriminatory conduct and offered sample policy language substantively identical to language struck down by a federal district court in The UWM Post, Inc. v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 774 F. Supp. 1163 (E.D. Wis. 1991). The sample language in the old Policy 14-6 (PDF) included an overly broad definition of discriminatory harassment and examples of prohibited conduct including “‘jokes’ that demean a victim’s color, culture or history.”

Thankfully, the Regents took FIRE’s concerns and the concerns of UW faculty seriously and voted at their October 2013 meeting to adopt a revised version of Policy 14-6 that better protects the free speech rights of students and faculty at Wisconsin’s public universities.

There is still important work to be done in Wisconsin, though, because many individual UW campuses maintain unconstitutionally broad discriminatory conduct policies based on the old Policy 14-6. In the coming months, FIRE will be writing to these institutions to inform them of the change in the Regents’ policy and to urge them to comply with their First Amendment obligations by adopting less restrictive policies.

We will keep you posted on the progress of individual Wisconsin universities in responding to this change, but for now, we celebrate this system-wide victory for free speech.

Image: Bascom Hall, University of Wisconsin - Panoramio

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