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UW-Madison pro-Palestine protesters spark debate over free speech laws

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//April 30, 2024//

Pro-Palestine protestors call for a "solution" to the Jews and for ""Cops to leave" while setting up tents in violation of Wisconsin law. Submitted photo Skylar Croy.

UW-Madison pro-Palestine protesters spark debate over free speech laws

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//April 30, 2024//

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Editor’s note: An update to this story is available here: Wisconsin cops clash with pro-Palestinian Madison protestors (wislawjournal.com)

On April 29, 2024, Madison protesters allegedly performed a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute at University of Wisconsin‘s Jewish students while violating Wis. Statutes by pitching tents on university grounds. The protesters were filmed chanting, “there is only one solution,‘ in what a Milwaukee attorney called “Fairly ominous.”

“I know these kids are ignorant but calling others ‘fascists’ and then chanting about a ‘solution’ to the presence of Jews is fairly ominous, WILL Director and Attorney Rick Essenberg posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, on Monday.

Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” included the extermination of more than 6 million Jews.

WILL attorney Skylar Croy said he spoke to several Jewish students on Madison’s campus on April 29 who are considering filing police reports after pro-Palestinian protesters allegedly performed the “Heil Hitler” salute to them on Monday.

During an interview with University of Wisconsin – Madison’s police officials Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Department confirmed an active police investigation is ongoing regarding protester(s) performing a ‘heil Hitler’ salute to Jewish student(s).’

“Our officers were approached yesterday by a (student) saying that (someone performed a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute to them). We are actively investigating to identify that individual (protester),” said Marc Lovicott, spokesperson UW Madison Police.

“We take allegations like this extremely seriously. Actions like that have no place on our campus. As soon as the report was made to us, we took immediate action,” Lovicott added.

A copy of the police report was not immediately available due to the nature of the ongoing investigation.

During an interview with the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest Regional Director Tuesday, David Goldenberg said, “encampments and anti-Israel protests like these have become platforms to fan the flames of antisemitism.”

“This is the latest example of the disgusting behavior of some protesters.  We have been in touch with Jewish community leaders on campus and will continue to support Jewish students any way possible,” Goldenberg added.

In the interim, the ACLU Wisconsin issued a statement Monday noting the importance of freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.

“Freedom of speech and peaceful assembly must not be undermined in places of learning and discovery. The next few hours, days and weeks will reveal whether the Wisconsin Idea still lives and if free speech and First Amendment protections for all of us are valued,” said Melinda Brennan, ACLU Wisconsin executive director.

While hate speech is protected speech under the constitution, the ACLU and University of Wisconsin are ignoring state law, according to multiple attorneys.

“There is not a First Amendment right to set up a tent encampment and occupy the courtyard in the middle of a public university,” Croy said.

Chapter UWS 18 specifies what is expressly prohibited on university lands. This includes the tents in which protesters erected on campus.

University of Wisconsin-Madison officials issued a statement Monday confirming the tents are illegal.

“Several tents were erected throughout the day in clear violation of Chapter 18 of the UW System Administrative Code. This provision of state law was enacted by the legislature and includes limits on the types of activities permitted on campus.”

Throughout the day, university leaders warned demonstrators that any kind of camping on campus was illegal, reported CBS58.

CBS58 also reported as of 10 p.m. Monday night, roughly 200 demonstrators were still on campus with about 25 tents set up.

Submitted photos: Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL) attorney Skylar Croy

The protesters’ demands included a message to local law enforcement.

“Get cops off campus” – the protesters demand.

Additional demands included not sharing information with the police, university officials or the news media.

UW Madison Protests
UW Madison Pro-Palestinian protestors’ demands target the media, law enforcement and the university.

As universities in Virginia and Indiana restored law and order, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has agreed to negotiate with the allegedly lawbreaking protesters.

WILL Attorney Dan Lennington also posted to X on April 29.

“By refusing to enforce a neutral state law, (the UW Chancellor is) allowing protesters to argue they are not breaking the law. On the other hand, she’s opening up Jewish students to racial harassment, which she has a duty to investigate under Title VI,” Lennington wrote.

When @UWMadison refuses to enforce state law, they owe the public an explanation. Non-neutral enforcement of state law suggests the government is not being neutral towards the speech. That’s a problem,” Lennington added.

As a protest erupted on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond on Monday, the Virginia State police restored law and order.

Indiana State police also took a firm stance in restoring peace and quickly quashed a protest.

Has the University of Wisconsin has taken dangerous steps toward embracing hate and ignoring the rule of law?

Croy says the university is walking a fine line and raises questions about the university “selectively enforcing the law.”

“I think the university is right on the line. If Jewish students go on the record and file complaints, there is definitely something there,” Croy said.

According to Croy, pursuant to federal law (under Title VI), the university must respect free speech while not allowing a hostile learning environment. When students are harassed while walking to class, Croy said students have a right to file a police report.

The streets on campus were also lined with anti-semitic messages.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is lined with anti-semitic messages. Photo submitted by Skylar Croy.

University officials and lawmakers have condemned the messages.

John Lucas, a University of Wisconsin communications official, said, “I can say that UW-Madison condemns anti-semitism in all of its forms and works to support our community of Jewish Badgers.”

State Rep. Lisa Subeck said Tuesday, “Anti-semitism has no place on our University of Wisconsin campuses, and together, we must condemn these messages. The university has an obligation to ensure the safety of Jewish students and should act accordingly to make it clear anti-Semitism will not be tolerated.”

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, protests on college campus have erupted across the Midwest and entire country. Also as previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, hate crimes in Wisconsin based on race or religion have nearly tripled in the past three years.

A spokesperson for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation said, “(We)  support the university’s messages reminding the community about the importance of peaceful and respectful protest while exercising our first amendment rights.”

This story has been updated.

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