Fostering a Free Exchange of Ideas · 13 December 2007

By By Wisconsin State - By Wisconsin State
Filed under: Wisconsin

Of all the institutions in America, the university should be the last place where you would find policies that discourage the free exchange of ideas.

UW-Madison administrators should bear that in mind as they review fees charged to provide security for speakers invited to campus to deliver controversial views.

The review was prompted by questions about whether it was excessive for the university to charge a fee of nearly $1,300 to the University of Wisconsin College Republicans for security at an Oct. 22 speech by conservative commentator David Horowitz.

The fee indeed was excessive. Moreover, it revealed a fee policy that threatens the free exchange of ideas.

The university ‘s review should be aimed at developing a plan for paying for security that avoids two important problems posed by the current fees.

First, charging organizations as much as $1,300 for security punishes groups for doing exactly what the university should encourage — bringing to campus ideas that stimulate debate and critical thinking. When the fees reach an extreme, they even threaten to prohibit groups from inviting speakers to campus.

Second, by charging organizations based on how much security is provided, the university gives opponents of freedom the upper hand.

If opponents want to penalize an organization for bringing a speaker to campus — or force the organization to withdraw the invitation — the opponents merely have to threaten to disrupt the speech. The university adds security, resulting in a huge bill to the sponsoring organization.

The university ‘s review of its security fee policy takes on added significance in the light of incidents of hostility toward freedom of thought on campus.

Horowitz and affirmative action opponent Ward Connerly have previously been targets of efforts to prevent them from expressing their right-wing views on campus.

Left-wing views have also been victimized. Last year, UW-Madison lecturer Kevin Barrett faced an effort by a handful of lawmakers to silence his radical opinion that the U.S. government orchestrated the attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

Underlying the hostility is the misguided view that audiences cannot be trusted to evaluate ideas. Rather, some ideas are to be feared — and banned from public discourse.

That view is wholly contrary to a university ‘s mission, especially the mission of UW-Madison.

In 1894, after a UW professor was exonerated of charges of radicalism, the UW Board of Regents issued this resolution: “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 can be found. “

Those words, displayed on a plaque at Bascom Hall, should guide UW-Madison administrators to modify their speaker security fees. The policy should ensure that any fees are consistent with the university ‘s responsibility to encourage a fearless search for truth.