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University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents Passes Free Speech Statement

By December 11, 2015

This morning, the University of Wisconsin System’s (UW’s) Board of Regents passed a policy statement affirming the system’s commitment to free speech.

The UW statement is substantially similar to the “Chicago Statement,” the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago earlier this year, according to UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs.

Downs, along with a small group of professors and regents, helped craft the version of the statement presented to the board.

“What we have is very similar to the Chicago standard, which is the gold standard,” Downs said.

FIRE has publicly endorsed the Chicago Statement as a model statement for free expression on American college campuses.

The UW vote comes on the heels of high-profile debates about the place of free speech in the controversies over racism on our nation’s college campuses, including a controversial statement on the issue by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. But Downs tells FIRE a draft of the resolution has been in the making since last spring, after nearly two years of informal meetings with professors and members of the Board of Regents.

“Now was an opportune time” to present their proposal to the regents, Downs said. But “it was not done to respond to UW-Madison events,” he said. “This took months, working behind the scenes.”

Downs had special praise for the Board of Regents, which he said took the matter seriously before passing the resolution late this morning.

“Their discussion was high-level and serious, and their sense of trusteeship came through in their comments and in their sense of responsibility for history.”

Schools like Princeton University and Purdue University have made similar commitments to uphold expression on their campuses this year.

Downs said the resolution’s passage at Wisconsin, which will impact all 26 UW campuses, was a “new step” in defending free speech on campus.

“Chicago’s one school, Princeton’s one school, Purdue’s one school,” he said. “This is the whole UW system.”

Downs told FIRE he hopes UW’s commitment to free speech will set an example for other universities to follow in their footsteps.

“This,” he said, “is a statement for the nation.”

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