Swastika on campus raises free speech issues

After a man carried a swastika sign near a pro-Israel event at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, the university issued a statement and a student leader said she would not be intimidated.

Things heated up from there.

This has included dueling statements from the school chancellor and a professor (here and here), plus articles from points as far away as England appearing to call the university’s response into question. Meanwhile, internet users have been pointing out that one of the man’s signs had the word “gas” and a symbol for Jews on the back of it. Video has been posted of him blaming Jews for various social issues.

Whether University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, as an arm of the state, can restrict free speech is a Constitutional question. Everyone in America has the right to free speech, though exceptions can be made when the use of force is advocated in pursuit of imminent lawless action.

“This is speech that we strongly and emphatically disagree with but we are a public university and we have to respect that people have the right to free speech even when we don’t agree with it,” said Michelle Johnson, a university spokeswoman.

UWM students attended a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration on Monday, May 6, 2019. A man with a swastika sign spent hours nearby.

When asked what she means by “respect,” Johnson said her point is that the university legally can’t restrict freedom of speech.

”When incidents like this happen we have staff and police who monitor the situation … (for) any threat of violence,” she said. “We are concerned about our students’ safety.”

Julie Schack, executive director of Hillel Milwaukee, responded by email while on a trip with students to Poland in late May: “I will say that we at Hillel Milwaukee are working with Chancellor (Matk) Mone, and his team to improve the communication and response to antisemitism and hate speech on campus. We will be participating in a task force with other stakeholders, students and campus administration and that all efforts are made to protect and ensure that our Jewish students feel safe and supported on campus.”

Professor Joel Berkowitz, who had that public conversation with the chancellor, was critical of the chancellor’s initial statements on the incident, then said he was “heartened” by a subsequent statement that included an apology.

A man with a swastika sign was near a pro-Israel event at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee on Monday, May 6, 2019. Elana Kahn, center, and Allison Hayden at right, both of the Jewish Community Relations Council, spoke with him.

As for free speech issues, Berkowitz said he understands “that the university is in some ways in a bind in these kinds of situations.”

But it’s student Anya Esther’s perspective that free speech is not the core issue: “The debate of whether or not it is free speech is a distraction from the true issue: that UWM did not have a plan ready in place to deal with a Nazi display on campus.”