MADISON, Wis. — University of Wisconsin students who disrupt speeches and demonstrations could be expelled and campuses would have to remain neutral on public issues under a bill Republican legislators are pushing this week.
The bill comes as free speech issues have grown more contentious on college campuses across the country. Conservatives are worried that right-wing speakers aren’t given equal treatment as liberal campus presenters and some students have complained about free expression fanning racial tensions.
In Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, students shouted down and traded obscene gestures with ex-Breitbart editor and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro during a presentation in November. This week, supporters of conservative commentator Ann Coulter rallied behind her after the University of California-Berkeley canceled her speech citing concerns that violence could erupt.
The bill is based on a model proposal the conservative Arizona-based Goldwater Institute put together to address campus free-speech issues. Legislation based on the model has been enacted in Colorado, with others being considered in five states, including Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia, according to the institute.
The lawmakers sponsoring Wisconsin’s bill said it represents Republicans’ promise “to protect the freedom of expression on college campuses.”
“All across the nation and here at home, we’ve seen protesters trying to silence different viewpoints,” Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said in a news release Thursday. “Free speech means free speech for everyone and not just for the person who speaks the loudest.”
UW-Madison’s policy already calls for facilitating free speech equally and objectively, school spokesman John Lucas said. Mandating sanctions eliminates the ability of a disciplinary committee to consider all the circumstances of the situation, he said.
“We urge the Legislature to work with the Board of Regents to identify policies that will address the free exchange of ideas and need for order while respecting the existing student conduct process that has served institutions well for many years,” Lucas said in an email.
University of Wisconsin System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the system is committed to ensuring freedom of speech at its institutions.
Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, called Vos and the bill’s other authors, Reps. Jesse Kremer and Dave Murphy and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, “fragile snowflakes.”
“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,” Ross said.
The legislation would require regents to quickly adopt a policy requiring each campus to remain neutral on current public controversies. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the bill would bar chancellors and faculty members from expressing their viewpoints or if university lobbyists’ work would be forbidden.
Vos clarified that portion during a brief interview Thursday, saying he believes chancellors and faculty should be allowed to express their personal opinions but universities shouldn’t take sides. He said a description of what qualifies as a university would be part of the process as the bill moves through the Legislature.
The policy also would have to include a range of disciplinary sanctions for students and faculty who engage in “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct” that interferes with someone’s free speech rights. The bill doesn’t define what constitutes any of that behavior.
Students would be entitled to a disciplinary hearing and appeals. Any student found to have interfered with someone’s free expression twice would be suspended for a semester or expelled. And anyone who feels his or her free speech rights have been violated can bring a lawsuit within a year to stop the violation.
Larry Dupuis, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Wisconsin chapter, said the neutrality provisions are so vague they could prevent universities from promoting tolerance for people and opinions.
Suspending or expelling hecklers, Dupuis added, is “unnecessarily draconian.”