ben shapiro speech (copy)

UW-Madison student Cody Fearing, center, leads a protest of the appearance of conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro (at right in blue shirt) on campus in November. 

KATIE COONEY, THE BADGER HERALD

A public hearing on a Republican bill to prevent students at University of Wisconsin campuses from disrupting controversial speakers wasn’t exactly a model of the pro-free speech sentiment espoused in the proposal, said some critics who waited hours to have their say.

“I’m here to testify against it, and it’s been like five hours and we haven’t heard testimony from one person who’s against the bill,” said Savion Castro, who will be a UW-Madison senior in the fall. “The chair, I’m assuming, has discretion over who can speak, who doesn’t speak and in which order they speak. So I think it is kind of ironic.”

The bill was getting its public airing before the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, chaired by Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville. It would impose a mandatory suspension or expulsion for students the second time they’re involved in an incident that interferes with the “expressive rights of another.”

The bill also requires “free expression” orientations for UW freshmen and requires university system institutions to remain neutral on controversial policy matters and creates a council on free expression that would review UW institutions’ handling of disciplinary measure.

“This is not a bill that I hoped would be necessary,” said the bill’s author, state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum. “But as legislators, the time to give lip service to free expression to Wisconsin taxpayer-funded higher education institutions is over. It is time to act and exact a behavioral and cultural transformation on campus.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called the bill “one of the most important ones we’ll take up this session.”

Prompted by student protests that interrupted or scuttled speeches by controversial conservatives, the proposal was built on model legislation by the conservative Goldwater Institute, a Bradley Foundation-funded think tank. Under consideration in other states as well, the bill is part of a national debate over student protests to speakers they consider offensive. 

The bill aims to discourage students from engaging in the kinds of protests that tanked plans for a speech by conservative Ann Coulter in Berkeley, California, last month and marred a speech by "Bell Curve" author Charles Murray at Middlebury College with confrontations and violence.

At UW-Madison last fall, protesters interrupted a speech by former Brietbart editor Ben Shapiro.

“If the university system is not able to stem this unrest and the increasingly hostile shout-downs, heckler vetoes and censorship, then what will?” Kremer said. “This is the answer.”

But Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the bill itself holds the potential to violate free speech rights.

Much of the concern centered around language that would sanction students for disrupting speeches with “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”

Some found the language too broad.

“I fear that a strongman type government could use some of the terms,” said Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire.

“I think violence we understand the definition of, but I think we run into a gray area of potential abuse when we start talking about profane and boisterous activity,” he said.

Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, was more blunt.

“What this bill is is a systematic and coordinated attempt to attack the First Amendment and free speech rights and intimidate students and faculty,” he said.

Ross said that in Wisconsin, no speakers have been deprived of their free speech rights by protesters. Shapiro finished his UW-Maidison speech after a brief interruption and despite objections by students and faculty, Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, whose penchant for offensive personal attacks got him banned from Twitter, was able to speak at UW-Milwaukee in December without incident. Yiannopoulos singled out a transgender student for ridicule at the Milwaukee speech.

And while proponents of the bill say their intent is in part to even the disparity currently favors liberal speakers, Ross charged that the intent behind bringing incendiary conservatives on campus is to provoke a response.

“These folks are brought on campus because they’re provocateurs,” he said. “And the fact that there are folks pushing back against that is not an infringement of the Constitution. It’s not an infringement of the First Amendment. Prior restraint, which is what this bill is, is absolutely unconstitutional.”

And it didn’t go unremarked that the bill is a product of a Bradley Foundation-funded group, and two of the groups backing it that were represented at Thursday’s hearing — the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty — also receive Bradley support.

“Will all those in the room who are not funded by the Bradley Foundation stand up?” Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, jokingly asked at one point.

Ross attributed the existence of the bill entirely to Bradley influence.

“We’re here because the Bradley Foundation spends money to try and influence elections and public policy debates,” he said.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

According to Stan Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the bill, through its provision banning the university from taking sides in public policy issues, aims to stifle attempts by students at some universities, including the UW, to force their schools to divest from pro-Israel groups and petroleum companies.

UW System officials weighed in with an explanation of what the university system already does to further First Amendment rights, and what it would like to do better.

Jessica Tormey, vice president for university relations and chief of staff for UW System President Ray Cross, said the system needs to do “a better job at ensuring all voices are heard at our institutions.”

She didn’t take sides on the issue but urged members to walk back the rigid disciplinary process in the bill.

“The student discipline process seems overly prescriptive to us and inflexible and does not take into account our current administrative code,” she said.

She steered committee members to a recent University of Chicago policy that provides more flexibility on how students are disciplined, but doesn’t include new boards or commissions. The state if Illinois Thursday passed bi-partisan legislation modeled on the policy, she said.

Several students, who are the primary target of the proposal, weighed in, with supporters from UW-Green Bay and UW-Madison getting their say while several waited — as did one from the University of Chicago.

About five hours into the hearing, Natalie Halbrooks, who will be a UW-Madison senior in the fall, was still waiting her turn to speak.

“They’re not expanding free speech rights in this bill,” she said. “What they’re really doing is infringing on assembly rights.”

Castro, the student who alleged the committee was purposely dragging its feet on calling the bill’s critics to testify, said he’s not opposed to having speakers who espouse hurtful views. But as an African American, he should be able to protest someone who calls his race genetically inferior without fear of reprisal.

“The words ‘boisterous’ or ‘profane’ or ‘loud’ are too vague,” he said, “and they will eventually prohibit someone’s First Amendment right.”

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.