University of Wisconsin Administrators Violate the First Amendment to Silence Dissent and Criticism

Wisconsin college administrators attacked the First Amendment this week, both by censoring a professor’s poster and criticism of fascism, and by inciting a flash mob to shut down a conference organized by a critic of the University of Wisconsin’s affirmative action policy, which allegedly violates the Constitution and federal laws against racial discrimination.  National Review describes one of the incidents:

Earlier this week, campus police showed up at the office of theater professor James Miller to take down a poster he had displayed on his office door. The poster featured a quote from the short-lived television show Firefly, Joss Whedon’s libertarian cult classic that is part throwback Western, part space fiction, and features characters (ironically) who battle an authoritarian government. The poster on Miller’s door featured the following quote, from a character named “Mal” Reynolds, explaining why he could be trusted not to kill another character in his sleep: “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once. If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.” Reaction from the UW–Stout administration was typically hysterical . . . saying they could not allow the poster, as it represented a threat of violence. UW–Stout police chief Lisa Walter e-mailed Miller, saying the poster “depicts violence and mentions violence and death” and that the campus’s threat-assessment team agreed the poster could be “constituted as a threat.”

As Christian Schneider notes at National Review, it was idiotic for college officials to equate something  that merely “mentions violence and death” with a violent threat. Under that reasoning, professors would be forbidden to “post a copy of the Gettysburg Address,” since in it Lincoln pleaded that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” It would also be a “threat” for a historian to recite Patrick Henry’s plea to “give me liberty or give me death.” As Schneider notes, administrators’ suddenly expansive definition of “threats” is ironic, since “if you stroll through any faculty lounge at the UW–Madison campus, you’re bound to find implicit threats against Gov. Scott Walker posted everywhere.”

In response to this censorship, the professor “placed a new poster on his office door,” which University Police Chief Walter then censored as well. “The poster read ‘Warning: Fascism’ and mocked, ‘Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.’ Astoundingly, Walter escalated the absurdity. On September 20, she wrote that this poster, too, had been censored because it ‘depicts violence and mentions violence and death’ and was expected to ‘be constituted as a threat.'”

Colleges can’t define speech as forbidden “threats” or “violence” merely because it mentions (or even glamorizes) violence, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit noted in Bauer v. Sampson (2001), which held that a college professor’s caricatures of a college president and satirical yearning for his death were protected by the First Amendment.

In another attack on free speech this week, the University of Wisconsin’s Vice Provost for Diversity incited a flash mob to shut down an event run by Roger Clegg, a former high-ranking Justice Department lawyer who argues that the University of Wisconsin’s affirmative action policy violates the Supreme Court’s Gratz and Bakke decisions.

As Peter Wood notes at the Chronicle of Higher Education,

On Tuesday, September 13, a mob of University of Wisconsin students overpowered the staff and swarmed into a room at the Madison Doubletree Hotel where Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, was giving a press conference on the release of two new reports from his organization. . .The immediate occasion was the release of CEO’s two reports, Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. . .The mob poured into the room, and Clegg, accompanied by University of Wisconsin Professor Lee Hansen and two members of the hotel staff, struggled through it to the exit, and, accompanied by protestors, to the hotel elevator. Several of the protestors prevented the elevator doors from closing until the two hotel staff members pushed them back. . .

The general manager of the Doubletree Hotel, Rom Ziarnk, issued his own press statement describing what had happened:

Unfortunately, when escorting meeting attendees out of the hotel through a private entrance, staff were then rushed by a mob of protestors, throwing employees to the ground. The mob became increasingly physically violent when forcing themselves into the meeting room where the press conference had already ended, filling it over fire-code capacity. Madison police arrived on the scene after the protestors had stormed the hotel.

The invasion of the news conference was a planned event, egged on by University of Wisconsin Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Damon Williams. . .“a crowd of more than 150 students” responded to Williams’s “ominous message” by showing up at the Red Gym, where they were met by Williams and Dean of Students Lori Berquam. They characterized the CEO reports as a “coordinated attack” against the campus. According to the reporter, Williams urged the students to mobilize and told them, “Don’t wait for us to show the way.”. . .After the students had taken over the conference room . . . Williams tweeted his praise of the protesters from his official university account.

The leading liberal blog Think Progress exulted over the shutting down of the event. In a blog post entitled “Wisconsin Students Shut Down Right-Wing Press Conference Attacking University’s Affirmative Action Policy,” the Center for American Progress’s Tanya Somanader approvingly noted that “forty-five minutes into the conference, over 100 university students stormed the room chanting ‘power to the people’ and ‘we’re more than our scores,’ effectively shutting down the conference.” She also noted without any trace of concern that “three DoubleTree employees reported getting pushed or knocked down” in the shut-down. (The Center for American Progress is one of America’s wealthiest liberal advocacy groups, and has been described as “Obama’s Idea Factory” by Time magazine). Collateral damage doesn’t matter to leftists when they are pushing their ideological agenda.

This university-orchestrated harassment was unconstitutional.  When government officials, like state college administrators, engineer the harassment of dissenters, that violates the First Amendment, even when the harassment is ultimately carried out by private individuals (like students).  (That principle is illustrated by the appeals court ruling in Dwares v. City of New York (1992)).

The civil liberties group FIRE decries Wisconsin’s censorship here and here. (By contrast, the ACLU, which believes that racial preferences should be required by U.S. and international law, has not said or done anything about the censorship; earlier, the ACLU defended a California hate-speech gag, and filed amici briefs in support of racial preferences that were later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Seattle and Gratz cases.)