A former biology professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who challenged a day of racial segregation and faced backlash, including having to hold classes off campus because university police could not guarantee his safety, will speak Monday, Oct. 15, during University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation Free Speech Week.
Bret Weinstein, now an independent scholar, questioned the Day of Absence at Evergreen in 2017. In past years students and faculty of color organized a day when they met off campus, a symbolic act based on the Douglas Turner Ward play in which all black residents of a Southern town fail to show up one morning. That was flipped in 2017 with white students, faculty and staff invited to leave campus for the day.
Weinstein thought that was wrong.
He wrote a letter to the school’s director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles,” he wrote, “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.”
The first instance, he argued, “is a forceful call to consciousness.” The second “is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” In other words, what purported to be a request for white students and professors to leave campus was something more than that. It was an act of moral bullying — to stay on campus as a white person would mean to be tarred as a racist, the New York Times reported.
The discussion on Free Speech and Anti-Orthodoxy will be moderated by Chancellor Bob Meyer and will include Weinstein and respondents Damon Sajnani, UW-Madison African Cultural Studies, and John Sharpless, co-director of the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy at UW-Madison. The discussion is planned from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in Ballroom C of the Memorial Student Center.
Tim Shiell, director of the Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation, said he believes there are aspects of the story that will come up in the session that have not been aired in the mainstream media and will provide a greater perspective about what happened at Evergreen.
The center at UW-Stout is nonpartisan and organizes events that offer many points of view.
Free Speech Week continues through Thursday, Oct. 18. All events are free and open the public. The schedule is available here.
Student Free Speech in the UW will be another topic during the week, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, in Ballroom C of the Memorial Student Center. The Board of Regents last fall adopted a resolution concerning freedom of expression.
Panelists will include Jim Manley, senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute, co-author of a model policy used by the regents; Coltan Schoenike, who is studying for his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at UW-Stout and opposed the policy’s adoption; and Casey Mattox, senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, who influences free speech policy and practice at a think tank. Doug Mell, UW-Stout executive director of University Communications and External Relations, will moderate the session.
“This is part of a national effort to educate people about free speech,” Shiell said. “It’s our goal to bring speakers and panels together to educate about the issues and the Constitution so people understand what’s important and to keep an open mind and understand their neighbor better. We are fortunate we live in a society we can have these debates in a civil rational way. I think we take that for granted.”
Other topics during the week include Great First Amendment Cases; Student Panel: Selma Civil Liberties Project; Debating Hate Speech and the First Amendment; and Free Speech and Originalist Jurisprudence.
The idea for a Free Speech Week started after a survey found limited knowledge about what the First Amendment means, yet people wanted more education on it. “I don’t think people realize how many of our freedoms are impacted by free speech,” Shiell said. “It is integral to every other right we have. It’s the core of a free democracy.”
UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.