UW-La Crosse Hate Bias Forum

Amanda Goodenough, assistant director of campus climate at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, speaks during a hate/bias forum in March on campus. More than 190 reports were made to the university's bias/hate reporting system during the 2015-16 school year, a system which has come under fire from free speech advocates.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

As campuses do more to combat discrimination, students and watchdogs are pushing back with free speech concerns.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has had a bias/hate reporting system and response team since 2005, Assistant Director of Campus Climate Amanda Goodenough said, and the university received 192 reports through the system during the 2015-2016 school year. The system allows students to anonymously report incidents of hate and bias on campus, which Goodenough said include any act motivated in whole or part by bias toward a protected group of people.

Not of all these acts rise to the level of student misconduct or a crime, she said, but they provide a snapshot of the culture on campus. The response team doesn't handle any incidents that do rise to the level of a conduct violation, she said, referring those to other campus departments, and she said a lot of the work of the team is reaching out to students who report an incident and providing support.

People can experience the same situation on campus differently, response team member and Affirmative Action Director and Title IX Coordinator Nizam Arain said, and can feel unsafe or threatened by behavior another person wouldn't find objectionable. The reporting system lets the university hear those marginalized voices and work on ways to address those issues.

"We want to help people to understand the importance of words and actions," Goodenough said, "to create a safe opportunity for people to have these conversations."

Whitney Storvick, the vice president for the Women's Studies Student Association and a senior from Waseca, Minn., said she has used the bias/hate reporting system a number of times while she has been a student at UW-L. Having the team helps combat hate and bias, pushes back against offensive actions being normalized in the community and provides a safe space for students to validate their reactions, she said.

"The system gives you the option to talk to someone who understands," she said, "someone to comfort you and assure that it's real. That's huge."

Western Technical College also has a bias/hate reporting form on the school's website and officials said the college received one complaint of graffiti last year. At Viterbo, harassment and bias-related incident are violations of the university's code of conduct and all incidents are investigated by university officials.

Bias incidents reported last year at UW-L run the gamut from graffiti and vandalism to spoken words and actions targeted at students. For instance, a number of students reported a video created by the university's Information Technology Services department that featured a white administrator dressed in a sombrero and imitating a Mexican accent. Other reports documented physical damage of a display of another country's flag on campus and incidents in which minority students were yelled at using racial slurs and epithets.

A number of incidents were reported by residence hall staff who documented offensive postings and graffiti found during rounds and who frequently encounter drawn penises, slurs and foul language posted on notes and whiteboards or in other common areas. Other incidents have resulted in university action, such as the drawing of a lynching with the words #blacklivesdon'tmatter, which resulted in a teach-in at UW-L last spring; sightings of a truck with the Confederate flag that resulted in a forum on racism last winter; and a "trap bed" left in the hallway of one of the residences halls that warned students to remember to wear a condom, which was highlighted at a forum on hate and bias last spring.

Other incidents target individuals or organizations that offended the reporter. One posting called out a professor by name for laughing inappropriately during a faculty senate meeting and a number of students reported their professors for how they taught controversial academic subjects such as sexual assault or Southern culture.

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.

While many of the incidents reported were anonymous or resulted in contact only with the students making the reports, the hate and response team did reach out to the administrators in the ITS video and have contacted Facebook administrators to remove social media posts reported to the system. The team has also worked with residence life staff to speak with students about some postings in the residence halls and reached out to department leadership in some of the incidents in which faculty were reported for their teaching.

Campus Climate also responded to the chalkings that appeared on UW-L sidewalks last spring with messages that supported Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump such as "Trump 2016 and "build the wall." A number of students reported the chalkings to the bias/hate response team, which responded on Facebook with this message:

"While we respect peoples’ right to express opinions, we also recognize that some communities on campus experience these messages as discriminatory or hostile. All manifestations of prejudice and intolerance are contradictory to our mission as a university."

That post was soon taken down from the office's official Facebook page. Goodenough and Arain said that the bias response team respects students and faculty members' First Amendment rights and have stated such on the reporting system's website.

That hasn't been good enough for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes First Amendment rights at colleges and universities. The organization lists the hate/bias system among UW-L's policies that receive a yellow-light rating for their potential to be used to punish protected speech.

The organization also chose the hate/bias system as its Speech Code of the Month for February of this year. Lawmakers and free speech advocates have been pushing back against these kinds of teams recently, such as the team at the University of Norther Colorado, which was recently disbanded after reports the team asked a professor to forgo discussing controversial subjects in class.

Samantha Harris, director of policy research at FIRE, said bias/hate systems like UW-L's are problematic for a number of reasons. They label bias/hate very broadly, which can include constitutionally protected expression. She said teams such as UW-L's that say they avoid taking action on reported incidents create a "process-as-punishment" system in which students, faculty and staff censor themselves in order to avoid being reported.

"It sends a message to students that they aren't adults who can work out problems themselves," she said.

Criticisms of "political correctness" on campus have been raised by Republican lawmakers in the Wisconsin Legislature. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called it a plague that stifles free speech and critical thinking in a report by the Capitol Times, and his sentiments were echoed by colleague Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater.

“If only the taxpayers and tuition-paying families had a safe space that might protect them from wasteful UW System spending on political correctness,” Nass said in an August statement.

A number of reports made to the system have been satirical or critical of it, such as students reporting encounters with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters on campus after the chalking incident. Others criticized university officials for their handling of the Confederate flag incident, saying it crushed free speech on campus.

Instead of stifling free speech, Goodenough said, the bias system fosters the expression of marginalized students. They're not being coddled, she said, but are some of the most resilient students she knows, facing both academic challenges and cultural adversities,

"Sometimes I think it is ironic ... the students using the system are exercising their free speech rights," she said. "If we replace the words PC with respect then respect is something everyone deserves."

During Friday's teach-in on rape culture at UW-L, several administrators and students spoke about changing UW-L policies in light of a recent incident in which an offensive banner was hung near campus. Some on campus have lamented the fact that the incident didn't rise to the level of a conduct violation and were upset UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow defended the free speech rights of the students. They called new policies that would result in punishment for similar speech in the future.

While he found the banner to be distasteful and gross, UW-L College Republicans president Ben Stelter said the students who were involved should never have to give up their free speech rights when attending a public university. This kind of attitude combined with systems such as the bias/hate response team makes it hard for students to speak up about issues or express their beliefs.

"It's a concerning time for free speech on campus," Stelter said. "People are not speaking their minds on both sides of issues."

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Nathan Hansen has been the Education Reporter for the Tribune since 2014. Prior to that, he covered education, agriculture and business topics for the Winona Daily News. He is always on the lookout for news tips and can be contacted at 608-791-8234.

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