By Brandi Makuski
In a 10-1 decision, the Stevens Point City Council has approved a resolution condemning hate speech.
The resolution initially proposed the city “condemn acts of hostility [and] stand in support of those who are affected by [them],” but that language was changed before approval.
When he introduced the resolution at the Nov. 21 council meeting, Mayor Mike Wiza thanked council members David Shorr and Meleesa Johnson for introducing the resolution, saying it was an important stand for the city to make, but noted it was only a statement, and was not “amending, adding or changing any existing laws.”
But later during the meeting, Wiza also said he “didn’t disagree” with Council President Mike Phillips’ concerns that the resolution could be seen as one that infringes on free speech.
But when a City Times editorial pointed out the vagueness of the word “hostility” — which was not defined in the resolution — posed a danger to free speech and free press, one councilwoman agreed to change the language.
“I would like us to say something more specific, such as — and I think this is what we mean — ‘hate, bigotry and intimidation’,” Ald. Mary McComb said, adding she agreed the word “hostility” was too general.
McComb also said she wanted the resolution’s ending to be more proactive from it’s initial statement of, “And be it further resolved that the Stevens Point Common Council stands in support of those who are affected by such hostility.”
A better ending, she suggested, would be: “Therefore, be it resolved the Stevens Point City Council will be vigilant in defense of the rights of all people, proactive in our attempts to be a welcoming community for all, and steadfast and vigorous in condemning all forms of hate and bigotry.”
Ald. George Doxtator said he wasn’t surprised the resolution was being proposed, but said the general public may not understand the catalyst behind it, and asked the mayor to elaborate.
“I’ve talked with the university, and they believe acts of intimidate and hostility have increased on campus recently,” Wiza said. “I don’t know whether those are politically motivated or not, and I’m not going to speak to that.”
Ald. Johnson, who drafted the resolution, said she was motivated to do so after attending part of a discussion on unity at UW-Stevens Point.
“I was struck by the students who got up and explained what they have to go through,” Johnson said. “One gentlemen indicated, ‘Again, the pickup truck went through the university,’ and everybody in the room started nodding their heads; there was an acknowledgment there was something bad associated with that….The gentleman went on to indicate an onslaught of homophobic slurs, and that’s not who we are.”
But President Phillips’ concerns went beyond the negative experiences of a select few.
“I guess I look at this a little bit differently,” Phillips said. “What one person sees as a verbal act of hostility is another person’s freedom of speech. I think we’re teetering on the edge here of taking away people’s right to speak and write.”
Wiza said he “didn’t disagree necessarily” with Phillips, but the resolution was “very similar” to an anti-harassment clause in the city’s human resources policy.
“We already have laws against the more heinous of these acts,” Wiza said. “And it’s unfortunate that we have to remind society to do this. What we’re doing is trying to remind the population, I think, that you have responsibilities. That your freedom of speech should also have some limitations in regards to accuracy and malicious intent.”
Ald. David Shorr said the most concerning element of recent events on the UWSP campus was graffiti reportedly found in one of the dorm buildings, saying, “It’s not the kind of written expression that absolutely is covered by the First Amendment.”
No references to graffiti, or any specific incident of hate speech, was mentioned in the resolution.
As of Nov. 27, a notice announcing the resolution on the city’s website does not reflect the change in language. With the new language, the resolution would read:
WHEREAS, diversity and inclusion have long been hallmarks of the Stevens Point community; and
WHEREAS, Stevens Point is the home of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, host to students, faculty and staff from around the world, across the nation and from diverse backgrounds; and
WHEREAS, recent acts of hate, bigotry and intimidation both nationally and against members of our community have been reported; and
WHEREAS, such acts of hate, bigotry and intimidation spread fear for other members of the targeted group; and
WHEREAS, such acts of hate, bigotry and intimidation threatens Stevens Point’s economic, educational and community vitality and growth; and
WHEREAS, such acts of hate, bigotry and intimidation run contrary to the principles of respect, dignity and fairness, that the Stevens Point community values;
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Stevens Point Common Council condemns acts of hate, bigotry and intimidation, whether verbal, written or physical.
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED the Stevens Point City Council will be vigilant in defense of the rights of all people, proactive in our attempts to be a welcoming community for all, and steadfast and vigorous in condemning all forms of hate and bigotry.