Maurice O. Graff Main Hall at University of Wisconsin LaCrosse. (Credit: TheTrashman / Wikicommons)

Wisconsin system president reprimands UW La Crosse Chancellor for Free Speech Week talk by porn star

By November 30, 2018

Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse hosted a speech by nurse, sex educator, and adult film star Nina Hartley as part of UW-La Crosse’s Free Speech Week. Now the university finds itself embroiled in controversy over the invitation: Its chancellor is facing a formal reprimand from the president of the UW System, who objected to the event, while civil liberties advocates are asking whether the UW System is truly committed to the strong free expression statement it adopted in 2015.

Hartley’s speech, titled “Fantasy vs. Reality: Viewing Adult Media with a Critical Eye,” was given Nov. 9 and was reportedly well-received by students, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Responding to initial criticism of the event, UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow cited the UW Systems’ 2015 “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” modeled on the Chicago Statement:

As chancellor I am proud to have responsibility for ensuring everyone at UW-L is aware of this policy, particularly the idea that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Gow then personally reimbursed the university for Hartley’s $5,000 speaker fee, calling his approach to the event “naive,” and scheduled an event from an alternative perspective with a speaker from the anti-porn advocacy group “Fight the New Drug.” Gow continued to defend the invitation. Inviting a differing perspective is a good example of a “more speech” response to criticism as an alternative to censorship.

Hartley, for her part, lamented the criticism, saying the treatment of her perspective “harms students by stunting their critical engagement on an important topic for which a college education is supposed to prepare them.”

The situation deteriorated Wednesday, when UW System President Ray Cross reprimanded Gow in a letter, saying the controversy would “impact [his] salary adjustment” and even going so far as to suggest that the university’s state funding might be at risk:

As we continue to struggle for greater financial independence and public trust, your decision to spend money from this fund on a one-sided lecture by an “… [adult entertainment] performer, educator, and … activist” unfortunately, puts all of our funding at risk. I fear your actions also detract from our budget request and our capital plan, which should be one of your highest priorities.

There are several troubling aspects to this statement. First, it’s a strong suggestion that Gow avoid inviting further controversial speakers. Consider the chasm between this statement and the UW System’s policy on free expression that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Gow is being punished for inviting a speaker who, in his own words, he thought would “give the members of our campus community an opportunity to engage with someone who holds a perspective likely to be very different from their own.”

Second, it is not often that we see a statement so brazen from a university system president so clearly indicating to a subordinate that he should put concerns about funding over the university’s purpose of educating students through a diversity of information and perspectives. While this fear is not necessarily unfounded, as Wisconsin lawmakers have twice threatened the budgets of Wisconsin universities over course content, it is nevertheless the role of the president to do his best to defend his institution against improper interference, rather than engage in censorship in order to head off criticism.

Taken as a whole, it is hard to read this statement as intended to do anything other than chill speech and narrow the range of viewpoints expressed on UW-La Crosse’s campus. That chilling effect is unlikely to stop at the chancellor.

Cross was not the only high-ranking UW official expressing troubling views at odds with the UW System’s stated commitment to free speech. System regent Bob Atwell wrote an op-ed in the La Crosse Tribune condemning both Gow and Hartley. “Pornography is a horrible hill on which to plant the flag of free expression,” wrote Atwell. But promises of free expression are of no value if they can only be relied upon when that expression is sufficiently popular.

As FIRE often notes, commitments to free expression do not exist to protect popular speech. Popular speech, by definition, rarely needs protection. We protect freedom of expression in order to protect controversial, offensive, and disagreeable expression. It exists to protect the kind of expression that drives administrators, such as Atwell, to write op-eds saying “I am hopeful this will result in a deep conversation about pornography rather than a shallow one about freedom.” In fact, there is no better time to have a conversation about freedom of expression and the lofty ideals adopted by the UW System.

If, as Cross fears, funding for the UW System were threatened on the basis of protected speech expressed by speakers, that would be a violation of the First Amendment. We would typically hope that under those circumstances, the UW System Board of Regents and president would come to the defense of their institutions. The statements from Cross and Atwell give us strong pause in considering whether or not they would.

The UW System is bound by the First Amendment. UW also chose to adopt the Chicago Statement. The UW System is morally and legally obligated to stand by those principles, and its officials must immediately stop behaving contrary to them and cease threatening a campus and its chancellor over the choice of a speaker.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – La Crosse