Saturday, August 27, 2016

“Just Words?" campaign doesn’t threaten speech rights at UW-Milwaukee

The Inclusive Excellence Center’s goal to educate on disrespectful words does not equate censorship

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are upset with an organization that is attempting to dissuade people from using certain terms in their everyday language.

Words and phrases like “thug,” “crazy,” “ghetto” and “man up” are being discouraged by the Inclusive Excellence Center, in their “Just Words?” campaign.

“Through ‘Just Words?’ we seek to raise awareness of micro aggressions and dismissive terms, their impact, provide an insight into their meaning,” their website states. They add: “We are not seeking to tell people what they can/cannot say.”

The campaign has its detractors, however, and some students are saying that their free speech rights are being threatened.

That is hardly the case. Raising awareness about the negativity that these words have is a far cry from restraining personal freedoms, and the Inclusive Excellence Center should be free to promote their program of tolerance. The organization itself recognizes that people are free to speak as they wish -- their mission is to educate, not mandate.

There was a time when speech on the campus of UWM was threatened. I should know -- I played a part in the story. The student government had attempted to pass a “Sedition Act” aimed at restricting libelous and slanderous speech directed toward the Student Association. Any criticism against the SA could result in litigation, although most legal experts agreed the law passed by the student lawmakers would have been hard to enforce. From the fine reporting of Isral DeBruin and Jonathan Anderson, then of the UWM Post:
Had the act become law, David Pritchard, a UWM media law professor, said there is no question it would have been ruled unconstitutional.

"The so-called 'Sedition Act' is unconstitutional on its face," Pritchard said. "Any state or federal judge in Wisconsin would declare the 'Sedition Act' to be unconstitutional in a heartbeat."


Pritchard pointed to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in explaining the flaws of the Sedition Act. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), Pritchard said, established that units of government can't sue for libel in the United States.


"Under American law, units of government cannot be libeled," Pritchard explained. "One of the flaws of the 'Sedition Act' is that it apparently can be activated only by 'libelous or slanderous communications regarding the SA,'" Pritchard continued, quoting the act. "But the SA as an organization can't be libeled."
At the time, I also worked at the Post as the editor of the opinion pages. I wrote many critical articles of the student government during my tenure, and had the measure passed it would have directly affected what I could write about. I spoke out against the SA’s attempt to undermine free speech on campus:

Having attended UWM during a time when speech rights were truly being threatened, I can honestly say that the current situation involving the “Just Words?” campaign isn’t at all the same. “Just Words?” intends to provide information on words that can cause stress for other students on campus. It doesn’t say these words can’t be spoken -- nor does it provide a recommendation for punishment if they are.

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