Nass has previously threatened the university system’s funding and suggested penalties for faculty members over an essay on the sexual preferences of gay men that a lecturer assigned to a sociology class; an arts festival called “Art in Protest” that he caused to be cancelled; a “cultural fluency” education program; a fact-sheet on “right-to-work” laws produced by a UW-Madison economics professor; and an invitation to Ward Churchill to speak on a UW campus that Nass wanted rescinded.
“It is not free speech,” Nass told the O’Reilly Factor back in the aughts while objecting to Churchill’s scheduled event. “It's hate speech. And that's where the line has to be drawn. And the university needs to withdraw their invitation for him to speak.” (In fact, as the ACLU points out, “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.” There is no hate speech exception.)
The point isn’t that every course, assigned reading, or invited speaker that Nass complains about is beyond criticism, or a prudent use of resources, but that no quality university can succeed if politicians insist on micromanaging campus life, especially if they focus on whatever grates most on their ideological sensibilities rather than matters of relatively greater consequence to tens of thousands of students. To insist that speaking invitations be rescinded is not the proper role of any overseer.
Alas, some current students possess a similar illiberal streak.
Earlier this year, student protesters at the University of Wisconsin at Madison tried to shut down a campus speech by the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. “In a climate where hate speech is being condoned frankly at an institutional level,” one protester argued, “at an institution that is not taking a firm stand, we are going to.”
Also, an investigation was briefly launched into an April Fools’ edition of the student newspaper after a censorious student filed an official complaint with the university.
Historical paintings portraying interactions between white traders and Native Americans were moved to storage after protests against them until a “controlled gallery space” was available due to “potentially ‘harmful effect’ on students.”
And at a satellite UW campus, a “hate-bias reporting system” is being construed so broadly that it is being used to lodge complaints against speech that is obviously constitutionally protected.
One student reported feeling unsafe after encountering a Campus Crusade for Christ poster on campus, saying the cross represents "oppression and hate of the LGBT+ community." The student reported feeling unsafe on campus while homophobic groups are allowed. Two students reported one of their peers for an off-campus blog post that was shared on Facebook and Tumblr about life as a white student, with one of the reporters saying the blog was offensive to students of color and they they did not feel safe living on campus since the author lived close by.
Lest overzealous policing of speech lead anyone to conclude that there must be an absence of truly odious expression at UW, think again. Inside Higher Ed reports on several abhorrent examples of speech that suggest ongoing bigotry directed at historically marginalized groups.
In January, a student taped swastikas and photographs of Hitler on the door of a Jewish student’s room. In March, three students interrupted an event about Native Americans who were victims of sexual assault by yelling “war cry” noises. Later that month, a student spat on a group of black students, calling them “poor and here on scholarship.” In April, someone slipped a note under the door of a freshman who is biracial and identifies as African-American. “Fuck you nigger bitch,” the note read.
This Halloween, an attendee at a UW football game upset many students and alumni by wearing prison garb, a noose, and alternating between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama masks. The student athlete Nigel Hayes responded to the incident with a powerful letter about prejudice that he has faced at the university and beyond.