A controversial free speech dilemma has bubbled up on the University of Wisconsin campus after two people attending a Badger football game over Halloween weekend wore racially charged costumes and were not ejected from the game.
One of the people was dressed as Donald Trump and the other President Barack Obama wearing a noose and dressed in prison garb.
Donald Downs, a retired UW political science professor and free speech law expert, said the costume is “sort of a grey area” when it comes to free speech.
“Hanging in effigy” has historically been used symbolically to show constituents’ displeasure with a political or public figure’s time in office, Downs said. But the fact that Barack Obama is black brings in the history of lynching, Downs said.
Downs said the overall message sent could be construed as a political statement, racially motivated sentiment or some combination of the two.
I think it was stupid. Very close to riot-inducing, though no actual riot was the outcome. The noose is a dumb touch. — deep breath —
I’d kick them out of the stadium, but what about in another venue? Are racially motivated stupid activities also protected by the First Amendment?
But Downs said the costume would ultimately fall under speech that’s protected from the law.
“If they wore a costume like that around town or on the street corner, that’s going to be protected speech, unless they confront somebody with it, face to face in a threatening manner, in which case it could be construed as a threat,” Downs said.
The hate speech activists would (and will) say the noose makes it a threat. It isn’t. The article actually shows a community calmly trying to deal with an odd incident. There’s some back and forth, with the university taking at least a tepid stand for free speech. And then…
The day following the incident, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement the political message, though hateful, constituted free speech.
“As offensive as this costume was, I believe our university must resist the desire to outlaw forms of speech and political dissent with which we disagree,” Blank said in the statement.
Blank also said the incident is a further reminder more work needs to be done to build a stronger, more inclusive community.
At a Faculty Senate meeting Monday, Blank further apologized for the university’s handling of the incident, announcing UW has since revoked the attendees’ season tickets. UW will also unveil new carry in policies by the end of the week.