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University of Wyoming's free speech report won't limit hate speech, president says

An individual dressed in black holds a protest sign that reads "I shouldn't have to be this afraid to be here. UW used to be somewhere I felt safe."
Jeff Victor
Wyoming Public Media
Silent protesters gathered in UW's Simpson Plaza Wednesday, Dec. 7. UW was criticized for not removing a man who had targeted an individual trans student with a sign in the student union; the university eventually banned him and he sued in federal court, claiming the institution infringed on his free speech rights.

University of Wyoming (UW) President Ed Seidel will start looking for ways to reiterate the university's commitment to free speech and neutrality. He'll be drawing from an 18-page report that was crafted last spring and received public comments all summer.

In a campus wide email, Seidel said the university is committed to the unhindered exchange of ideas, as well as staying officially neutral on most controversial issues.

"A fundamental principle is that the university plays a unique role by providing a neutral forum for the deliberation and debate of public issues," Seidel writes. "Providing such a forum does not mean the university either endorses or condemns the different perspectives expressed."

Seidel said UW will support free expression by acting on the recommendations in the report. Those include reexamining the student code of conduct, donor relations and various other corners of university governance.

The report does not rewrite university rules, but it may inspire changes to university policy down the road.

During the UW Board of Trustees last month, Trustee Dave True said he was worried that the recommendations in the report lacked "teeth" and that there was no clear mechanism for punishing instructors or others who didn't stay neutral.

"What are the consequences?" he said. "We don't have any consequences."

True added he understands tenure protects professors from termination, but there may be other areas — such as compensation — where the university could crack down instead.

"There are other things besides tenure that might work as consequences of clearly inappropriate behavior," he said.

Trustee Michelle Sullivan pushed back on that, arguing that the report would be most effective if it inspired a culture of free speech.

"It's something that we have to continue to cultivate," she said. "I'm not sure that 'consequences' is always the best way of cultivating a culture."

Free speech has been a hot topic at UW this year. A recent federal lawsuit pitted free speech protections against other principles the university espouses, such as nondiscrimination.

Local preacher Todd Schmidt was banned from tabling in the student union after displaying a controversial table banner. The banner took aim at transgender people and specifically named an individual UW student. His ban was set for one-year, but he sued the university and won a preliminary injunction, so he was back for the fall 2023 semester.

Seidel addressed the lawsuit in his email to campus.

"It is well known that U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal recently approved a preliminary injunction requiring the university to allow Todd Schmidt to regain his tabling privileges in the Wyoming Union," the president writes. "Judge Freudenthal's preliminary ruling was that UW infringed upon Schmidt's First Amendment rights and that his public misgendering of a transgender UW student did not constitute illegal harassment."

On a related note, Seidel told the trustees much of the public comment on the report criticized it for not taking a stand against hate speech.

"But of course, that is a First Amendment right," he said. "It's clearly protected under the First Amendment, even though many people may not like to hear that."

He reiterated the point in his email.

"There are legal limitations to free expression on our campus," Seidel writes. "But feeling uncomfortable or offended — and, in many cases, even feeling unsafe — is not, in and of itself, grounds for stopping speech."

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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