Alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos sparked an upheaval at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 2016 when he took his national tour to campus and ridiculed a transgender student by name. The episode led to protests at the university. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Joel Berkowitz was outraged when a University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee student held a sign bearing a swastika and a hateful message directed at students celebrating Israel’s independence: “Gas,” the sign said.

But Berkowitz, who runs the school’s Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies, was also angered with the university’s response. He felt a statement from the school’s chancellor, Mark Mone, defending the student’s right to free speech failed to condemn strongly enough the hateful message.

“The University’s initial response was shockingly weak,” Berkowitz wrote on his campus blog.

And so began a conversation, in private and in public, with echoes on college campuses throughout the nation. College administrators are searching for ways to balance First Amendment rights with the right of students and faculty to feel secure. They’re not always finding the right mix.

“They weren’t even denouncing a swastika in the middle of campus,” Berkowitz said in an interview.

Yet Berkowitz, whose family includes Holocaust victims and survivors, acknowledged the difficulty of honoring the principles of open discourse and respecting dissent that pushes the limits of decency. Shouldn’t limits be placed on speech so repugnant — gas the Jews — that it implies a threat of violence, he wonders?

“No one that I’m talking to is saying that we should ride roughshod over the First Amendment,” Berkowitz said. “But there are discussions about what are the limits of free speech. They are not absolute.”

The university’s chancellor has issued two public statements since the May 6 protest, while more than 1,400 people have signed an online petition urging the school to expel the sign-holding student. Efforts to reach that student for comment through email and social media accounts were not successful.

“What [the student] did was not just an expression of speech,” the petition says. “… It’s incitement of violence against the Jewish community on campus.”

University officials have promised campuswide efforts to engage students in further discussion on free speech rights and constructive ways to respond to deeply offensive opinions.

“That’s our role: It’s to help students develop skills and have resources to help with civil discourse,” Vice Chancellor Joan Prince said. “They will leave us and go into the world where this kind of incident will probably happen again.”

How to deal with provocative speech is a question challenging other campuses, too. At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville last week, more than 100 protesters greeted Rick Tyler, a white nationalist who ran for Congress two years ago under the slogan “Make America White Again.” They outnumbered attendees by about 10 to one, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

Last month, administrators at several New Jersey institutions condemned a video on social media depicting students who attend college in the state uttering a racial slur. Rowan University officials heard that one of the students was theirs and told him they wanted to speak with him, but learned the student wasn’t returning to campus, spokesman Joe Cardona said.

“We didn’t even have a conversation with him,” Cardona said.

But Cardona also acknowledged it’s not clear what, if any, action the school might have taken.

“It’s difficult, it’s challenging and it’s uncomfortable because you’re on a fine line, especially at a public institution,” Cardona said. “There’s freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean freedom of not being challenged.”

State legislatures have enacted measures to protect free speech on campus, while President Trump signed an executive order in March protecting freedom of speech on college campuses. The order was welcomed by those who say universities have created a politically correct atmosphere that favors liberal views but criticized by those who say campuses remain open to vigorous debate from all sides.

The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee has endured upheaval before over offensive speech. In 2016, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos took his national tour to campus and ridiculed a transgender student by name. The episode led to protests and soul-searching at the public university, where people of color make up about one-third of the student body.

Following Yiannopoulos’s visit, university officials opened discussions with students about free speech, and students created new curriculums on the topic. University administrators sought to explain that the school is limited in addressing offensive speech. As a state school, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee is bound by laws and Supreme Court rulings that permit the school to regulate the time, manner and place of public speech but not its content.

“You run into trouble when you try to regulate who’s speaking at a public forum based on what they have to say,” said Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute. “That’s viewpoint discrimination. That’s nearly always unconstitutional.”

Although some surveys suggest that today’s students are more receptive to limits on speech deemed hateful or threatening, Nott said she believes people of all ages tend to embrace the First Amendment more in the abstract than in practice.

“People like it in theory because it’s nice in theory,” Nott said. “But, generally, when it comes up, it’s with abhorrent speech, and it’s hard to think that applies to speech you find repulsive.”

The May 6 incident on the Milwaukee campus began when students organized a rally marking Israel’s independence, and a student appeared with a sign showing a swastika. Calls for disciplinary action against the student, including expulsion, started soon after, and Mone issued his first statement the following day.

“Under the First Amendment, displaying offensive symbols, such as a swastika, to a general audience in a public space is protected akin to speech,” Mone wrote. “Nevertheless, please know that we emphatically renounce such hateful symbols and do not support or condone any viewpoint that is hurtful, harmful or disparaging.”

For some, the chancellor’s words made things worse. Mone apologized and acknowledged that his first statement had fallen short.

“Please know I have heard you and acknowledge my message did not fully capture or reflect how deeply saddened, frustrated and angry I am personally, as a member of this community, that anyone would inflict such pain and fear on our Panther family,” he wrote. “I strongly condemn the swastika and other messaging that it contained for what it is — hateful, anti-Semitic and an affront to our University’s values and dedication to inclusivity and diversity.”

Mone declined to comment. Other university officials, citing privacy laws, wouldn’t say whether disciplinary action had been taken against the student. But as the controversy spread, students and members of the Jewish community criticized the university’s apparent lack of action.

“How evil! He should be arrested!” a commenter wrote on Artists 4 Israel’s Facebook page.

Anti-Semitic Attack Against Artists 4 Israel

Exclusive Video Trigger Warning: This video contains racist and anti-Semitic language. Artists 4 Israel’s motto is “Art Over Hate.” Whether that hate comes in the form of Hamas rockets, the shutting down of Israeli speakers on campus, or the physical attacks American Jews face in their synagogues and neighborhoods, Artists 4 Israel is there to defend and support Israel, American Jewry, and all peace-loving people around the world. Last week at Brandeis University, an A4I mural was vandalized - not once, but twice - by anti-Israel hate groups. Yesterday at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, a student attempted to intimidate Artists 4 Israel into shutting down an event by holding a sign with a swastika and chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans. Below is an exclusive video of the student’s thoughts as expressed to a few brave students who attempted to engage in dialogue with him. As A4I brings together a coalition of artists representing all races, ethnicities, religions, and social ideals to support peace, art, and Israel, this individual’s ”protest” was offensive in very personal ways. A4I’s artists today proved our motto of “Art Over Hate” and showed how powerful the work of creation can be. Even in the face of hate, hundreds of students came together as a community to show that love is more powerful than hate.

Posted by Artists 4 Israel on Monday, May 6, 2019

Some responded with strong language of their own.

“Of course, there’s always an alternative resource that’s also available on- and off-campus, which employs a blanket, three hefty individuals and a baseball bat,” read an article on JewishPress.com, an online site for the largest weekly Jewish newspaper in the United States.

Berkowitz said the school’s response should include establishing a formal process to determine whether a university member should be penalized for hateful speech that shades toward a threat, as he believes occurred here.

“Just because you have the right to say something under the Constitution doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. There can be other kinds of policies in place,” Berkowitz said.

And yet Berkowitz is also deeply wary of violating principles of academic freedom or free speech rights as enshrined in the Constitution — principles often in tension.

“In my approach to these things and as a descendant of victims of the Nazis and survivors of the Nazis, you might think that I would think, ‘Well, let’s just ban it all and anyone who expresses that stuff, let’s just throw them in prison,’” Berkowitz said. “At the end of the day, I find myself being very American. . . . There’s something to be said for letting everything be let out in the light of day instead of driving it underground. But at the same time, we’re in very strange times.”