Wisconsin lawmakers consider university free speech bill

MADISON — A Republican bill that would let public universities in Wisconsin punish students who disrupt speeches and campus appearances got its first public airing in the Legislature Thursday, May 11th.

The Assembly higher education committee held a hearing on the proposal backed by Speaker Robin Vos and other Republicans. The measure calls for University of Wisconsin system officials to suspend or expel students who engage in obscene or violent behavior that interferes with the free expression of others.

Free speech has become a contentious issue at campuses around the U.S. Conservative firebrands such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have had appearances in Wisconsin and across the country derailed or canceled due to scores of students protesting what they say is hate speech. Republicans say attacks on the right to speak freely — no matter the message— have reached critical levels requiring intervention.

“The ultimate goal of this legislation is not to promote speech that we found hateful vile and disgusting,” said Rep. Jesse Kremer, a sponsor. “Just because we find this speech vile and disgusting doesn’t mean it should be censored.”

The measure would give the UW System authority to expel or suspend students who engage twice in “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”

Critics, including some conservatives, said the language could be too subjective to pass constitutional muster. Kremer told The Associated Press last week that he plans to pare down the bill to consider only violence or disorderly conduct. But he said at the hearing that the language will be changed “if need be.” He didn’t immediately respond to a message Thursday seeking clarification. He said the Board of Regents would ultimately be responsible for determining punishable behavior.

Vos said early in the legislative session that ensuring college students get exposure to beliefs from both sides of the political spectrum is a priority of his.

“Colleges are a place to cultivate beliefs, but you cannot have a debate when only one side is allowed to show up,” he said at the hearing.

But critics blasted his reasoning, saying the bill exacerbates the very issue it seeks to solve.

“Far from protecting free speech, this bill would interfere with it,” said Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Invoking language from UW’s unofficial mission statement, he said the proposal would turn “sifting and winnowing” of ideas into “gagging and suppressing.”

Opponents also took issue with a provision of the bill that would require UW institutions to “strive to remain neutral” in public controversies, saying it could inhibit faculty members’ research.

The bill is based on a model proposal from the Goldwater Institute, a conservative Arizona think tank behind similar plans in at least five other states. Colorado already passed a law.

Other Republican lawmakers — Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Adam Jarchow — plan to introduce their own campus speech bill. It would also apply to the state’s technical colleges and would go as far as prohibiting students from organizing protests to dissuade speakers from visiting.