Ideas on Trial

UW-Madison faculty members Katy Culver, left, and Howard Schweber, and attorney Kevin St. John debate the limits of free speech at the first Ideas on Trial event Tuesday on campus.

PHOTO BY PAT SCHNEIDER

It may be legal to shout insults or slurs at someone, but that doesn’t mean you should. That goes for college campuses, social media or anywhere else, said participants in “Ideas on Trial: Free Speech on College Campuses,” a panel discussion held Tuesday at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Just because the First Amendment allows you to do something, that is not the end of the inquiry” into whether it’s the right thing to do, said Howard Schweber, a UW-Madison professor of political science and legal studies.

Schweber was joined by UW-Madison assistant professor of journalism and mass communication Katy Culver and Kevin St. John, a former Wisconsin deputy attorney general who is now a partner in Bell Giftos St. John.

The debate style discussion was the inaugural event of Ideas on Trial, a series of events founded by UW-Madison student Sam Fritz. It was funded in part by Associated Students of Madison and moderated by students CV Vitolo-Haddad, director of debate at UW-Madison, and Jordan Foley, assistant director of debate.

The debaters took up the topic as universities across the country consider limits on expression on campus, following a spate of violence greeting provocative speakers whom protesters say should not be permitted to spread hate of marginalized groups through their speech.

The UW Board of Regents last fall adopted a policy requiring suspension — and even expulsion — of students who repeatedly disrupt others’ speech at UW-Madison and other campuses. The policy mirrors Republican legislation, supported by some students, that sponsors said was needed to allow conservative voices to be heard on campus. Opponents said the penalties will chill legal protest.

Schweber called the policy “idiotic,” saying that the campus’ existing code of discipline provided penalties for behavior that would stop someone else from speaking.

For that matter, shouting someone down today does not silence them. "They can go on YouTube,” he said.

Insulting and offensive speech is often called “hate speech,” but the law recognizes no such category and insulting and offensive speech generally is protected under the First Amendment, said Schweber.

But provocateurs are using that legal tradition to stir political strife, gaining a toehold in an attack on free speech, he said.

Instead of debate about the rights of free expression under the U.S. Constitution, “I want to talk about expression responsibility,” Culver said.

There has been an erosion of ethical thinking around thoughts expressed and language used, even as the freedom — and platforms — to publish have rapidly expanded in the digital age, Culver said.

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“College student have become hardened to the harm of offensive language because they are in those offensive environments,” she said. “That does not mean it’s something the community has to engage in.”

St. John said the spread of unbridled speech means society “potentially is losing the ability to engage in argument and debate.”

“Universities are radical, they are exactly the places where orthodoxy gets upended and defeated by better ideas,” he said. But he is distressed by a growing impulse by students to want to challenge speech that is discomforting and “get mommy and daddy to tell me who is right.”

Just as they prefer the university not insert itself in free expression on campus, Culver and Schweber said they did not want university administrators telling professors what they can say in their classrooms, making a judgment on whether their speech has educational value.

Faculty have professional and ethical standards to guide them, they said.

Academics should stick to their area of expertise in class, they agreed, and be more willing to hold one another accountable to do so.

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