Scott Walker’s Fear of Free Speech

“I used to be a little boy / So old in my shoes / And what I choose is my voice / What’s a boy supposed to do?” –Billy Corgan, “Disarm”

I woke up on Good Friday to learn that my governor, Scott Walker, the most powerful man in the state of Wisconsin, had implicitly accused me, a tenured professor of English and Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, of holding a gun to the head of University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross and other University of Wisconsin administrators. Given that, unlike the majority of Wisconsin Republicans, I do not now nor ever have owned a gun, this accusation came as something of a surprise.

“’I think it’s unfortunate,’ Walker said of UW System president Ray Cross saying he would resign if tenure and shared faculty governance are eliminated. ‘This is exactly why you need to have these reforms and why you shouldn’t be able to have the faculty have a gun to the head of chancellors and administrators.’”

Walker’s Maundy Thursday comment on the Charlie Sykes radio show referred (at about the 29:00 mark) to a question I posed Ray Cross at an open forum at UW-Milwaukee on March 25. I had asked Cross whether he was prepared to pledge to resign as UW System President if he was unsuccessful in substantially reducing the proposed $300 million in budget cuts and preserving tenure and shared governance for University of Wisconsin campuses. To my surprise, and the surprise of everyone in the audience, Cross gave a one-word answer: “Yes.” Despite protestations from UW Board of Regents President Mike Falbo that the question was an unfair attack, Cross quickly insisted that there was nothing personal about it, but that it was part of the customary forms of debate and dialogue that occur every day in the university. Clearly Ray Cross did not feel as if I had a gun to his head.

But Governor Walker thinks differently, and his remarks prove why tenure, shared governance, and academic freedom are essential to the functioning of higher education in the United States. One might object that he was not speaking literally, but metaphorically. Indeed later in the interview with Sykes he referred again to the gun, but qualified it as speaking figuratively. I’m an English professor. I get figurative language. But Walker’s metaphorical pattern of equating free speech with violence is not new. In New Hampshire in February, Walker infamously equated Madison protesters in 2011 with Islamic terrorists, telling his fellow Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that because he had weathered the 2011 protests he had all the experience he needed to address ISIS if he were president. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe.” And just as Walker likened the constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly to acts of terror, so here he has likened a faculty member’s asking a question of a university system administrator to holding a gun to his head.

Because in my household Good Friday was celebrated this year on the same day that Passover began, the effect of being threatened by our state’s pharaoh–I mean, governor–was intensified. For make no mistake. Likening the 2011 protesters to Islamic terrorists threatened future protesters who might seek to demonstrate against this year’s punitive budget cuts to the university system, K-12 education, the Department of Natural Resources, and other public institutions. By contending that my freedom to question our System president about his commitment to tenure and shared governance was equivalent to holding a gun to his head proved that tenure must be reformed, Governor Walker proved just the opposite. Equating a question with holding a gun to someone’s head may be metaphorical, but Walker’s threat to my job security, and that of any other University of Wisconsin faculty who dare to question our administrators, is literal and quite real.

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About rgrusin

I am an Academic Entrepreneur and Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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