University of Wisconsin-Madison Bascom Hill
Wisconsin Lawmakers Once Again Threaten Academic Freedom

By December 21, 2016

Two Wisconsin state legislators are threatening to withhold funding from the University of Wisconsin–Madison if a scheduled course on racism, called “The Problem of Whiteness,” is taught next semester.

In a press release, Representative Dave Murphy, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, explained his position:

I don’t understand how a University that preaches political correctness can stand by a professor who openly condones violence against law enforcement and compares white voters to the KKK … UW–Madison must discontinue this class. If UW–Madison stands with this professor, I don’t know how the University can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW–Madison.

Representative Murphy’s threat to withhold funding from the university was joined by Senator Steve Nass, who also threatened to slash the university’s budget last July over the content of a sociology course of which he disapproved. Of course, legislators—like everyone else—are free to criticize academics as they see fit, but using one’s power as a government official to crack down on speech is the very definition of censorship prohibited under the First Amendment. Preventing a class from being taught would be a textbook example of prior restraint. And as any fan of the movie The Big Lebowski knows, “the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint.”

To its credit, the university issued its own statement defending the course, explaining that it would “benefit students who are interested in developing a deeper understanding of race issues. The course is a challenge and response to racism of all kinds.”

Regardless of whether the course is a helpful exploration of race relations, academic freedom and the quality of education provided to students suffers immensely when faculty are not free to decide their own content. If politicians can exercise veto power over course content they don’t like, we will increasingly see conservative faculty silenced in particularly progressive states and progressive faculty censored in conservative parts of the country.  Indeed, threats by legislators to pull public university funding over controversial teachings or campus activities are nothing new and have come from all parts of the political spectrum.

As The Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf eloquently observed:

[C]onservatives, liberals, and libertarians should all be able to agree that consistent, principled defenses of free speech norms are indispensable at institutions of higher education, and that their absence is most damaging to marginalized students. Uniting against illiberalism on the right and left is the best course. Otherwise, political groups will waste their efforts on an interminable fight to censor one another, instead of defending the values that serve them all.

In addition to demanding that the controversial course be cancelled, Representative Murphy, citing tweets the professor posted after a number of police officers were shot in July, also called for the university to fire him. Thankfully, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, the university offered a robust defense of free speech on campus when “Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf said the university ‘supports the First Amendment rights of its students, faculty and staff, including their use of social media tools to express their views on race, politics or other topics, in their capacity as a private citizen.’”

It’s good to see the University of Wisconsin–Madison take this principled stance in the face of legislative pressure. Hopefully, the legislature will drop these misguided and even unconstitutional threats.