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The Missing Voices in the Free Speech Debate

Issue of the week

Jul. 11, 2017
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Photo Credit: James (Flickr CC)

Issue of the Week reflects the Shepherd Express opinions on important issues in the news. It is usually written by the Shepherd’s editor, but at times we invite individuals outside of the paper who are either working in the field or have some other level of expertise.

Free speech on Wisconsin’s college campuses has been getting a lot of attention at the State Capitol recently.

Lost amid the manufactured furor over a handful of protests of right-wing provocateurs appearing on campuses in other states—and whether Wisconsin students ought to be threatened with expulsion if their activism offends older, white GOP politicians—are the challenges students of color face, and have faced for generations.

Right now there are 664 African Americans out of 31,407 undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the entire UW system, there are 4,640 African Americans out of 151,895 undergraduate students.

Yet rather than asking why the percent of African American students is so alarmingly low, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, is fast-tracking a bill to create safe spaces on Wisconsin campuses for right wing purveyors of racism, misogyny and xenophobia.

As a person of color studying at the overwhelmingly white UW-Madison, I believe policymakers also ought to hear my story and consider my experience, and the stories and experience of other students of color, before telling us whose voices are and aren’t being heard.

I am a scholar in UW-Madison’s PEOPLE program, a scholarship for historically disenfranchised communities in Wisconsin. Ever since my first summer on campus in seventh grade, I have been told to be on my best behavior, lest we make white people uncomfortable with our brown voices.

As a UW-Madison student, I have been told I am only here because I am black, and in a discussion section, someone even said I am an affirmative action enrollee, implying I took a more qualified white person’s seat and therefore should not speak. 

It is a reality many African American students have to live with on campus. Most African American students never forget their first time walking into a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students and being the only black face. It is a chilling and isolating feeling. The voices of people of color on campus are often discouraged, overlooked and silenced.

The conservatives’ campus speech bill would make it worse. If, after a disciplinary hearing, a student’s behavior has been found to interfere “with the expressive rights of others,” he or she can be suspended; a third violation results in expulsion. That means students of color speaking up for ourselves making fellow white students uncomfortable could face retaliation in the form of facing suspension or expulsion. 

And for extreme cases, for every protest of right-wing speakers Vos points to, I can point to a hate crime perpetrated against a student of color on a college campus. In May, Bowie State University graduate and Army Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III was stabbed to death by a person who pledged to white supremacy on social media. In 2017, colleges and universities have reported increases in white supremacy groups and hate crimes on campuses nationwide. Even at UW-Madison, a student was found recruiting for a white supremacy group.

If someone like Charles Murray comes to town, promoting his “academic research” alleging a black student like me is genetically inferior to my white peers, I would hope that the university to which I pay tuition and the government of the state in which I live and pay taxes would support my right to speak up and defend myself.

Vos has done nothing to fully understand why students of color have protested speakers, nor at any time has he addressed the hate crimes, inspired by these hateful ideas, students of color have endured. Instead Vos is attempting to pass a law so that students will be suspended or expelled for speaking up for themselves.   

Savion Castro is a UW-Madison student and One Wisconsin Now research associate.

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