UWL celebrates national ‘Free Speech Week’ less than one week after chalking incident


Image retrieved from uwlax.edu.

Less than a week after the controversial chalking incident by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse College Republicans, UWL will take part in the nationwide nonpartisan celebration of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, known as Free Speech Week (FSW).

The first FSW took place in 2003 and was spearheaded by The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia. The purpose of the week is to raise public awareness of the importance of freedom of speech and of a free press in our democracy – and to celebrate that freedom.

The Joint Committee on Free Speech Promotion (JCFSP), created by Chancellor Joe Gow in 2019, has partnered with the Center for Transformative Justice (CFTJ) to purchase licenses so that students may enroll in the self-guided Canvas course, ‘Free Speech in Campus Discourse.’ The course itself was created by the Antidefamation League (ADL) and launches today. Click here to enroll now.

“The freedom of speech and the freedom of exchanging ideas is at the heart of the university’s mission,” said Committee Chairperson and UWL Assistant Professor, Terry Lilley, “The search for truth, justice, and knowledge is vital to freedom of speech, and what this week is all about.”

The committee hopes to lead Free Speech Week on campus, despite their seemingly quiet existence within the university.

“We typically will plan some events or speaking engagements during the week,” said Lilley, “Typically we will also do things in the spring as well.”

This may be the mission of the free speech committee, however many wonder where their presence was last spring amidst the School of Education chalking and rising First Amendment debates.

Assistant professor of political science and public administration, James Szymalak, is among the skeptics.

“I’ve always questioned the creation of this committee. It grew out of an effort to silence speech,” Szymalak said, referring to the controversial adult-film guest speaker, Nina Hartley, who was invited to speak on campus for Free Speech Week in 2018.

Despite efforts by the committee, the CFTJ, and the ADL to promote Free Speech Week, many question why they chose Canvas as their medium, given that students already occupy most of their time on Canvas for school.

“The ADL material is going to be excellent,” said Szymalak, “I haven’t looked at it but I know their work and I know it’s going to be excellent. However, this is of great interest to me but am I going to go out and do the Canvas course, no.”

The political science professor said he believes more interactive, in-person learning and on-campus activities would prove more effective than a Canvas course, especially coming out of the pandemic during which everything was strictly remote and online.

Szymalak is also concerned about discourse regarding the 2024 presidential election that is on the horizon and said he’s surprised it hasn’t been worse.

“Let’s not waste this opportunity to have a conversation about our chalking policy. At this rate it’s going to keep coming up; so let’s have an inclusive group that comes together and comes up with a more workable policy.”