As political polarization across the country fuels ideological confrontations on college campuses, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gov. Scott Walker is proposing a law to require UW officials to protect offensive speech.
In his 2017-2019 executive budget, Walker recommends “codifying the state’s commitment to academic freedom,” and providing $10,000 in funding for the UW System to review and revise “policies related to academic freedom.”
The proposed companion budget bill elaborates, stating among other things, that:
- The UW Board of Regents and each college campus “shall guarantee all members of the system's community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”
- “It is not the proper role of the board or any institution or college campus to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
- Members of the system’s community are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus and "speakers who are invited to express their views, (but) they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
- “The board and each institution and college campus has a responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
Walker’s proposal is raising concern among some members of the UW-Madison campus community that it might, in fact, stifle speech.
Wisconsin is not the only state seeing proposed legislation that purports to seek to protect free speech on campus.
In Tennessee, a proposed law requiring that colleges punish students who interfere with the free expression of others has been dubbed the Milo Bill, for alt-right provocateur and Breitbart News editor Milo Ylannopolos.
In a December talk at UW-Milwaukee, Ylannopolos targeted a transgender student by name from the stage, prompting condemnation from Chancellor Mark Mone.
A scheduled appearance last month by Ylannopolos at the University of California, Berkeley fueled a small riot that forced its cancellation, feeding conservative claims of unbridled liberal efforts to silence opposing speech as well as broader cautions about the need to protect all speech.
Planned legislation in North Carolina would require the state’s public university system to punish students who shout down speakers and expose the university to lawsuits by those whose free-speech rights it allowed to be infringed, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. Virginia and North Dakota already have passed laws supporting free speech on campus, the Chronicle reported.
At UW-Madison, some are raising concerns about the impact of Walker’s proposal, should it become law.
“While protecting freedom of speech is important, it’s also important to protect freedom of assembly,” said Jason Klein, spokesman for Associated Students of Madison. “Just as speakers should have the right to comment on issues they want to, students should have the right to protest what speakers are saying.”
Klein said the budget bill was not clear on what the university would be required to do to protect offensive speech.
“If the university is being told to censor students, that is troubling,” he said.
At UW-Madison, disruptive protests greeted an appearance by conservative speaker Ben Shapiro in November, and protesters last month demanded that Chancellor Rebecca Blank condemn hate speech after a student tried to start a chapter of a white nationalist group on campus.
As a comment on Walker’s budget proposal, a campus spokeswoman cited Blank’s remarks in response to an earlier controversy over a class on white privilege.
”I’ve always thought that universities’ greatest value to society is that they are places where any idea is thinkable and debatable… even ideas that shock and insult. A university’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech is a commitment that allows all ideas to be presented and discussed,” Blank wrote in January.
Michael Moscicke, president of the AAUP chapter at UW–Madison, also raised concerns about the freedom to respond to offensive speech under Walker’s proposal.
“My only concern is to ensure that speech at our institutions will be protected under such a law, even when it takes the form of protest,” Moscicke wrote in an email.
Moscicke remarked, however, that he is “heartened to see the governor take a public interest in protecting freedom of expression for faculty, academic staff and students on our university campuses.”
He positioned the free expression issue in the context of other recent UW controversies, saying that restoration of tenure and shared governance, diluted in Walker’s last biennial budget, “would go a long way towards protecting freedom of expression at our universities.”
The proposed $10,000 funding in Walker’s budget would cover any administrative costs to update UW’s freedom of expression policies, spokesman Tom Evenson said.
But the UW System Board of Regents reaffirmed its commitment to free speech on campus a little more than a year ago, which says in part that UW “provides all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to explore ideas and to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”
The UW needs to practice what it preaches, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos complained last fall, saying that too many guest speakers at UW campuses are liberal.
Scot Ross of the progressive advocacy group One Wisconsin Now sees a connection between Vos’ criticism and Walker’s budget proposal, which is now before the Legislature for approval.
“Gov. Walker put an alt-right, safe space on campus to placate Speaker Vos for the budget negotiations. They have a contempt for the university that's so rich you could put it on flapjacks,” Ross wrote in an email.
Vos’ office did not respond to an inquiry Friday about whether provisions in the Walker budget proposal might be used to balance the ideological bent of guest speakers on campus.