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UW president promises new focus on free speech, civil dialogue

(The Center Square) – The new free speech lessons for the University of Wisconsin’s next freshman class will not just be about speaking your mind.

UW President Jay Rothman told regents during meeting in Milwaukee he is planning a new curriculum for new students about both sides of the right to freedom of speech.

“This fall, all incoming freshmen students will learn more about freedom of expression and about the rights and responsibilities associated with the First Amendment,” Rothman said. “This provides the foundation for any subsequent discussion and debate on a number of possibly contentious topics.”

Rothman said the UW needs to reevaluate what free speech on campus means, particularly after the pro-Palestinian protests that played out at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.

Rothman has been clear the university supports the right to protest on campus. But he’s been equally clear the UW cannot, and will not in the future, allow anyone to break the law or silence other students.

“Over the last month or so, a number of our campuses have had demonstrations in reaction to the ongoing situation in the Middle East,” Rothman explained. “Through this the Universities of Wisconsin remain committed to upholding free speech rights, while simultaneously upholding the law, and our mission to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of our students.”

Rothman said there is a perception that free speech rights on campus are somehow under attack. He pointed to Republican lawmakers who’ve pushed for tougher free speech laws for years at the UW.

But Rothman said it’s not speech that is having trouble on campus. It’s listening to other people’s speech.

“Within the Universities of Wisconsin I believe the rights of our students to express themselves freely is not the primary issue. Rather I believe the real challenge is ensuring the presence of civil dialogue,” Rothman added. “By this, I mean the simple act of respectfully sharing ideas and opinions and listening to others.”

Rothman did not say just what the new free speech curriculum will entail.

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