The University of Wisconsin, Working with FIRE, Revises its Bias Reporting Policy

Recently, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education received word that the University of Wisconsin at Madison had revised its “Bias Reporting” Policy in a manner that allowed FIRE to give the policy a “Green Light,” replacing the “Yellow Light” that had previously graded the program.

You can read the story by FIRE’s Azhar Majeed here. See also this report by the Badger Herald, a leading student newspaper. The reform was the product of a meeting Majeed held along with some of us at UW Madison, including top administrators, who, in turn, interacted with the Chancellor and others.

I am especially gratified with this result because of my love and respect for my University. I am an emeritus faculty member at Wisconsin, and am gratified at how open the administration was to constructive change. As Majeed’s report shows, the new policy is a sincere attempt to balance concerns about bias with respect for free speech and open inquiry. Now it must be applied conscientiously. I am also very pleased to continue the relationship that freedom of speech advocates at Wisconsin have enjoyed with FIRE, which extends back to FIRE’s founding in 1999.
Majeed writes,

Happily, the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently made changes to its bias incident policy that reflect a proper recognition of the First Amendment rights at stake. UW-Madison’s “Bias Reporting Process” formerly earned a “yellow light” rating from FIRE because the policy’s definition of a bias incident was too broad and restricted protected speech. The revised policy earns FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating for campus speech regulations and, as such, is a good model for other institutions to follow.

Bias reporting policies are designed to provide information about the status of bias on campus. Unfortunately, they too often contain very broad definitions of bias, and can serve as punitive speech codes in disguise. And many policies contain only lukewarm statements affirming the importance of free speech. Thus, at least two problems arise. First, such policies signal that free speech is of secondary importance. Second, overly broad and vague definitions of bias can engender a culture in which campus citizens fear being reported for saying anything anyone happens to find offensive or disagreeable, leading to an Orwellian environment. For this reason, FIRE gives a disproportionate number of bias reporting programs Yellow or even “Red” Lights.

Wisconsin’s previous policy was problematic for these reasons. Bias could have included speech that had a “negative impact” on someone, which is a very broad and vague term. Simply expressing support for an unpopular political candidate could qualify. And the supporting statement about free speech was less affirmative than it could have been. Finally, the old policy did not make it clear that the program was designed for informational purposes only.

The new policy corrects each of these problems. The definition of bias now tracks Supreme Court precedent regarding harassment, and the policy includes a strong statement about First Amendment rights and their importance to the University. And the new policy declares the policy will not make any student conduct punishable that is not already punishable under existing appropriate misconduct rules.

UW Madison’s action in this case builds upon a long legacy at the institution. In 1894, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin issued a famous statement supporting academic freedom and free inquiry during a controversy over a professor’s speech and activities. As a gift to the University, the Class of 1910 gave the University a plaque that contained the core of this longer Regent Statement. Today what we call “The Plaque” stands attached to the entrance to Bascom Hall, the administration building that sits atop Bascom Hill (a picture of the building is on display in Majeed’s FIRE report). The Plaque says:

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth may be found.