A new Republican bill would require the UW System to adopt a policy on freedom of expression and sanction students who “interfere with the expressive rights of others.”
The bill, authored by Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, would require UW campuses to suspend or expel students who violate the policy twice. Kremer said the bill is needed to ensure people on campuses can listen to constitutionally protected speech, no matter how offensive or unpopular it may be.
“It just so happens that right now, it’s conservative voices on college campuses who feel that they are being suppressed and censored,” Kremer said. “And in the future, that could change, so we want to make sure that this is enshrined in law.”
This week, safety concerns led to conservative commentator Ann Coulter announcing she was no longer appearing at UC-Berkeley, which in February had cancelled a speech from former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos after violent protests.
The bill is similar to model legislation developed by the conservative Goldwater Institute.
Kremer’s co-authors are Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Rep. Dave Murphy and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf. The latter two chair the Legislature’s higher education committees.
Vos, R-Rochester, noted to reporters Thursday his office conducted a study of speakers brought to UW campuses and found the “vast majority” are liberal. He said he has no problem with those speakers being brought to campus — so long as other viewpoints are heard.
“The goal is to really increase the opportunity for more speech on campus regardless of viewpoint,” said Vos, a former UW regent.
The UW System and UW-Madison said they’re committed to ensuring freedom of expression and will work with the authors on potential changes.
But critics knocked Kremer’s bill, with the liberal One Wisconsin Now saying it would “create mandatory safe spaces where conservatives, Republicans, racists and sexists can be exempt from criticism by their peers.”
OWN Executive Director Scot Ross said it’s another attack on students from Republican lawmakers, citing the voter ID law’s effect on students and the Legislature cutting off funding for the United Council of UW Students.
“Now, these Republicans want to make our campuses safe spaces for Republicans to be free of criticism and subject students to legal sanctions if they speak out,” he said.
Kremer said that’s OWN’s “partisan political garbage again” and that the group is only attacking him because he’s a Republican. He also pointed to the example of Colorado, where Dem Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a similar bill that was backed by the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Wisconsin’s chapter of the ACLU, though, said requiring a suspension or expulsion for a second instance of non-violent heckling is “unnecessarily draconian.”
“A heckler can be legally removed from an invited speaker’s presentation, but the extreme sanction of suspension or expulsion could chill legitimate, but pointed, questions from the audience,” ACLU of Wisconsin Legal Director Larry Dupuis said.
The bill would require the UW System’s policy to include a statement on its commitment to “intellectual freedom and free expression” and that its role isn’t to shield students from speech “they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”
Under the bill, students who are found responsible twice for violating the policies governing their conduct at campus events would be suspended or expelled. Before that happens, though, they would have a hearing where they can call and question witnesses, and students can appeal any decision that is made.
Kremer highlighted the disciplinary procedure under the bill as “very open and transparent.”
UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said university officials “appreciate and agree with the desire of the bill’s authors” but raised concerns over state law outlining specific sanctions, saying it removes flexibilities that campus disciplinary committees currently have in deciding on sanctions.
Kremer said he understands that argument but “we have to have some teeth in this bill,” adding that the bill lets UW decide whether a student gets suspended or expelled.
UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis noted the Board of Regents passed a resolution reaffirming its commitment to the issue in December 2015. She said the system is reviewing the bill and its authors “have assured us they will work with us moving forward to maintain the free exchange of ideas throughout the UW System.”
A portion of the bill also says institutions “shall strive to remain neutral” in public policy debates and can’t “require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.” Kremer said that part has “nothing to do with lobbying” lawmakers on proposals and only says campuses “shall not compel someone to state a certain belief.”
See the bill: