Open Letter to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents on Free Speech

We, the undersigned, would like to state our concerns about the way University of Wisconsin System leadership has dealt with UW–La Crosse Chancellor Gow’s invitation to Nina Hartley to speak at the campus. Because of Hartley’s status as an ex-porn “star” and the sexual nature of her presentation, UW President Raymond Cross decided to issue Gow a “reprimand” for professional misconduct.

This action is wrong on several grounds. Let us mention three. First, a reprimand is an official sanction, meaning that it constitutes a harm to Gow’s record and reputation. Such harm raises questions about the status of Gow’s legal rights, including due process. Was Gow given a fair hearing to make his case for inviting Hartley to speak on campus?

Second, in an op-ed in Inside Higher Education, Ms. Hartley made an intellectual case for her presentation that points to potential pedagogical value. Among other things, she addressed issues sexuality, feminism, and liberty—all important questions for law, society, and politics.   By all accounts, it was a civil and rational discussion that included critical questions directed at Hartley.

Third, Chancellor Gow has openly defended his reasons for the invitation emphasizing his intent was to bring in a controversial speaker regarding a matter of public concern in order to actualize the principles of free speech that are touted in recent Regent policies regarding free speech on campus.  The entire spirit of these policies support what Gow did in this case, and few people would support official sanctions against a member of the faculty, a student or other campus group that brought Hartley in for similar pedagogical reasons. If so, why is it appropriate to sanction Gow in this manner?  Gow has even personally reimbursed the university for her honorarium.

As Regent policies so eloquently state, free speech inextricably entails tolerating the right to express and hear controversial viewpoints. Hartley’s speech would address intellectual, social, legal, and psychological aspects of sexuality. It was not at all obscene as that term is defined in law. Punishing Chancellor Gow for his actions in this case appears to contradict the policy the Regents so eloquently and conscientiously passed.

President Cross has claimed the reprimand has nothing to do with free speech, but rather addresses only how Gow handled the matter.  But it strains credibility to believe the same reprimand would have been issued had he handled a Ben Shapiro or Heather MacDonald visit the same way.  Gow’s invitation to Ms. Hartley is hardly a matter that deserved this level of action.  The invitation and presentation are entirely consistent with Regent policy.  In this light, we hope that President Cross reconsiders his actions.

Richard Avramenko, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, UW–Madison
Donald Downs, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, UW–Madison
Noel Radomski, Associate Researcher, UW–Madison
John Sharpless, Professor, Department of History, UW–Madison
Tim Shiell, Director, Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation, UW–Stout