Attitudes toward the First Amendment, peace activism and a literacy program at the La Crosse County Jail were among the topics a panel on social justice activism discussed Tuesday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
The university’s Social Justice Week, which started Monday, includes performances, programs and discussions on a multitude of topics from whiteness to campus rape. Social justice is broadly defined, UW-L Social Justice Institute director Laurie Cooper Stoll said, and can include work on and attitudes about food scarcity, racial inequality, gender inequality and poverty, among others.
A trio of UW-L English professors discussed the challenges of partnering with the La Crosse County jail to develop a reading program. They spoke of the challenges of working with people marginalized in society. Their short stays and the structured nature of the jails create complications.
Professors Kelly Sultzbach, Bryan Kopp and Kate Parker said assessments had little value to the inmates, so the group explored what reading means to the inmates and how it affects them. Their observations influenced the instructors, who try to incorporate some of that self-discovery in their courses at UW-L.
“The experience completely transformed how I think about teaching,” Parker said. “It was well worth it.”
History professor Deborah Buffton pointed out that society the history of war more than peace — and ways people can change that conversation. History textbooks are divided into chapters about wars, she said, even though peace makes up most of our daily lives.
“History is taught from a war-ist perspective,” she said. “Conflict is what we are looking for when we are teaching history.”
She asked what it would mean for society if it divided history books by eras of peace, such as the founding of the Peace Corps in the 1960s, rather than by wars hot and cold.
Nizam Arain, UW-L’s director of affirmative action, discussed the history of the First Amendment and its relation to social justice. Campuses nationwide have been in the spotlight in recent years for their handling of hate speech, usually defined to include hurtful or discriminatory language, racial slurs and other unseemly forms of expression directed toward specific people or groups.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education was founded as a response to the debate about freedom of expression on campuses. FIRE ranks college and university campuses’ commitment to free expression, labeling campuses with policies that infringe upon those rights or could be used to silence expression as yellow light or red light schools.
UW-L is a red light school for a number of policies that restrict conduct in residence halls and online. FIRE lists UW-L’s hate and bias reporting system, which Arain deals with as a member of the Hate Response Taskforce, as something that could be used to restrict expression on campus.
During his presentation on the first amendment, Arain said he doesn’t consider the issue of free speech and social justice a black and white one, as free speech has evolved as it has been reinterpreted by the Supreme Court and society.
For example, he said, freedom of speech was much more limited during the early decades of the United States as the new government passed sedition laws that to punish people who criticized the fledgling nation. There was a similar crackdown during World War I, and laws have changed as different groups have posed legal challenges and the courts have continued to reinterpret the First Amendment.
There are several arguments for changing how the interpretation of First Amendment to protect marginalized groups from hate speech, Arain said. But changes can have unintended consequences, he said, and many argue that a free marketplace of speech and ideas, even hurtful ones, offers a forum where marginalized groups can advocate change.
During a question and answer period, Arain was asked whether hate speech was increasing or decreasing on campus. He demurred on the broad question, saying instead that the hate and bias reporting system has been recording more incidents, with people of color and the LGBTQA community being primary targets.
“The most salient trend is the increasing number of reports,” he said. “There isn’t necessarily more hate speech, but more awareness of the process, and access to resources and support.”