We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 84th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
The battles over “free speech” on campus have loomed large in the era of Trump, with conservative provocateurs invited to campuses across the country only to claim that they are being silenced when students protest them. In one of the latest salvos in the battle to claim “freedom of speech” for the right wing, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies are pushing a policy that would suspend or expel students for protesting in ways the university deems infringe on the free speech of another.
Today we bring you a conversation with Thomas Gunderson, an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an organizer (both on and off campus) with Our Wisconsin Revolution. Gunderson is organizing against Gov. Walker’s policy.
Sarah Jaffe: The University of Wisconsin and Scott Walker’s appointees there made headlines again last week with some sort of “free speech” policy. Can you explain that?
Thomas Gunderson: The big issue with it is that it is complicated to explain. The moral of the story is that it essentially threatens to suspend and expel students who … violate a new set of really obscure and vague policies that the Board of Regents will be proposing.
So, you don’t know what the policies that you could potentially be already violating are?
Pretty much. That is the really scary part. They promote it as a bill that is done to protect “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” while the obscure language really just chills the student body … many think that this is the real intention of it, given that, really, the only thing that is concrete about it is that students will be suspended and students will be expelled.
For disrupting speech, right?
Yes, or disrupting just ordinary activity. Whatever that could mean.
Was there a particular incident on the University of Wisconsin’s campus that made this seem necessary to the regents, or is this sort of a response to the national feelings that everybody is having about campus free speech?
This is really just about having a corporately captured state legislature and now, at this point, Board of Regents in Wisconsin. The Board of Regents policy is the other side to the Campus Free Speech Act, which comes out of the Barry Goldwater Institute from Arizona, a hard-right libertarian-esque type of think tank.
What would that act do?
That was pretty much giving the Board of Regents the go-ahead to make a new set of policies regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression, which is also just a huge irony. In Wisconsin, they are acting as if the University of Wisconsin Madison Board of Regents has been a stalwart of academic freedom when it has recently removed tenure and made the university a more exclusive place by raising the price of it.
This is all happening in the context of ongoing changes and attacks on the university. Could you talk a little bit more about those over the last few years?
I think it was around two years ago that they made pretty sweeping changes to what was once really sound tenure protection at the university. It caused a huge backlash among faculty and there has been a huge problem with retention since, as well as rising prices. It has really been pretty much an all-out assault on what once made [the] University of Wisconsin system kind of special.
Yes, I remember when Walker tried to change the Wisconsin Idea. Can you explain to people what that is?
Yes. That was really a sneaky Walker move, where he tried to slide in language changing that the goal of the university wasn’t to promote the sifting and winnowing [of] the pursuit of truth, and instead to … saying that the university’s goal is to apply a sound workforce for Wisconsin.
Walker’s attacks on the university have gone back to when he was first elected, but also, the university has been the source of a lot of the protests against him, going back to the Teaching Assistants Association … who started the Wisconsin Uprising back in 2011.
On the one hand, we have something very specific here with Walker’s specific motivations toward the university system. On the other hand, we are seeing similar attacks on public universities around the country, and we are seeing this particular obsession with student protest being somehow antithetical to free speech nationally. I wonder if you could talk about where you see these attacks on the university and on free speech in the broader national context.
It is especially annoying that they are just trying to do this in the UW system right now, because just in the recent year they have politically attacked both professors and students. Members of the state legislature have openly attacked professors and students whose expression, whose free speech they have found disagreeable.
For anything like a “free speech” legislation to have any sort of legitimacy to it, the restrictions upon free speech have to necessarily be viewpoint and value-neutral restrictions. That this would be the case in the UW system at the current moment is just completely unrealistic. I think that is what has many students, at least in my circles, very concerned about this: that they will be people who are targeted. Particularly a lot of minority groups at the university, those that are here are really worried about it.
In the moment of Trump, Wisconsin, of course, has been living with Scott Walker for a while now, so you have seen a lot of the things that are now being moved to the national level there.
Right. Just another really bizzarro quintessential timing thing of it is that as we speak, UW Madison is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the student Vietnam protests here on campus. If these policies were around then, those students wouldn’t have only been pepper-sprayed, but they also would have been possibly getting suspended or expelled or worse.
Since we are talking about this and the work that people are doing on campus being potentially under threat, talk about what Our Wisconsin Revolution has been doing on campus.
At the moment, there [have] been a lot of op-eds written. We are trying to really just bring awareness that this happened on Friday the 6th [of October]. We also have a petition circulating that everyone is welcome to sign, saying they support the students and their right to freedom of expression and speech, and the language of this legislation is too vague and we believe will be used to target already marginalized students. We are, hopefully, going to build up some student awareness and, hopefully, be able to make something happen when the Board of Regents is actually at the University of Wisconsin Madison in these coming weeks, because they have not banned protests quite yet.
When did Our Wisconsin Revolution get started and when did the campus branch get started?
Our Wisconsin Revolution is fairly new. It is the state affiliate of Our Revolution. It arose in Wisconsin over this past summer, in June. I was able to attend the convention where we elected our board and made plans to get a Dane County and Madison chapter officially affiliated. Being that Our Wisconsin Revolution started in the summer, this is Our Wisconsin Revolution’s student chapter’s first semester. There has been a lot of energy around it, just because at this point, we have taken the [Bernie] Sanders vision and really tried to apply it to Madison, which has meant opposition to a new jail that the county board has been trying to build, and really building membership and awareness at this point.
Going forward, do you have anything coming up with Our Revolution on or off campus that people should know about?
We don’t have a specific event planned at the moment, but the third Thursdays of every month we have a social mixer with the Democratic Socialists of America and that is always a great time. People should come to our general assembly meetings on the fourth Thursday.
How can people keep up with you online?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.