Update: UW System Regents on Friday approved the free speech policy with one dissenting vote.
University of Wisconsin students are urging the system’s governing board to remember student rights as they consider a “free speech” proposal that requires expulsion of students who repeatedly disrupt expression they find offensive.
The proposal — which mirrors a Republican bill approved by the Assembly in June — requires sanctions on students found responsible for “materially and substantially” disrupting free expression by others more than once, including mandatory expulsion after a third incident.
Legislators were prompted by incidents at a handful of U.S. campuses of guest speakers, mostly provocative conservative commentators, being silenced by protesters. At UW-Madison, Ben Shapiro was briefly shouted down by students last November, but was able to resume his talk.
Regents, all but one of whom were appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, are scheduled to act on the free speech policy Friday at their meeting at UW-Stout.
Members of UW Student Representatives are concerned about the impact of the proposed policy on their campuses.
“We would urge that (regents) consider the due process and rights of students along with the free speech of those who come to our campuses,” students said in a statement from the executive board of the UW Student Representatives.
“As an organization, we seek to give all students the ability to express themselves in an open, civilized manner. We hope that the Regents will equally prioritize the concerns of students in this process and to give all parties fair opportunity to express their concerns about this proposal and the processes it establishes," said the student representatives, who come from several UW campuses.
Some protesters involved in the UW-Madison confrontation spoke of their right to shut down “hate speech” on campus.
One UW-Madison student who opposes the policy said it will foster hate speech on campus.
“The Board of Regents is threatening the First Amendment rights of students, faculty and administrators as they pander to right-wing Republican politicians and the right-wing money machine to whom they answer,” said student Savion Castro, who is a research associate at One Wisconsin Now, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Their actions will result in the creation of campus safe spaces for right-wing provocateurs to engage in racist, misogynistic and xenophobic speech.”
In its statement, OWN asserts that the regent policy is intended to codify and insert into law as administrative code the potentially unconstitutional legislation stalled in the state Legislature.
The policy before regents explicitly rejects the idea of discouraging speech that falls short of such legal exceptions to constitutional protection as defamation, true threats and unjustifiable invasion of privacy.
“Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community (or those outside the community) to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” the policy reads.
“It is for the members of the university community, not for the institution itself, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress exploration of ideas or expression of speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose,” it says.
Not specifically addressed in proposed policy is an issue that raised concerns during the Assembly debate: the manner in which an accusation of violating the free expression of another can be made.
The bill passed by the Assembly calls for UW policy permitting anyone to report an alleged violation, worrying some opponents that people from groups with conflicting ideologies might seek to silence each other with such complaints.
Both the bill and the regent policy require a formal investigation and hearing if two allegations are made and the following sanctions:
- Mandatory suspension of at least one semester if a student is found responsible for two incidents of disrupting free expression;
- Mandatory expulsion on a finding of responsibility in three incidents.
The policy also requires the UW System to report annually to the Board of Regents on complaints of violations of the policy on campuses, and for chancellors to explain why any repeat offenders were not suspended or expelled.