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University of Wisconsin System students who disrupt speeches on campus could face expulsion under a bill circulated Thursday by Republican lawmakers. 

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Students who disrupt speakers on University of Wisconsin System campuses would be punished and potentially expelled under a bill scheduled for a vote Wednesday in the state Assembly.

The controversial legislation has drawn criticism from those who say it would curb free speech rather than expand it and that it would stand in the way of the UW System's authority to manage its own campuses. Its supporters say its goal is to encourage free expression and to ensure all viewpoints can be heard at public universities. 

"Today we are ensuring that simply because you are a young adult on a college campus, your constitutional rights do not go away," said bill author Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum.

Under the measure, students who repeatedly engage in "violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the free expression of others" would be subjected to discipline that, on a third incident, would result in expulsion. The bill requires UW System campuses to launch investigations and hold hearings the second time a student is alleged to have interfered with the expressive rights of others.

The hearings and their outcomes would be reported annually to a newly formed Council on Free Expression.

While critics of the proposal say it's a solution in search of a problem, its backers say it's needed to prevent controversial speakers from being shouted down when they visit campuses. Its passage comes amid a growing national focus on political speech on college campuses.

"Somehow young people, and frankly some of the administrators, have taken the position that some speech doesn’t have the right to be heard," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, said the country has faced free speech struggles throughout its history, but they have been resolved without legislative intervention.

"This is really part of a political program," Berceau said. "It’s part of the continuing effort to really establish a conservative stronghold in our country on every institution, and now they’re going after or universities."

The bill is similar to others being considered throughout the country, modeled after sample legislation prepared by the conservative Goldwater Institute, and takes some pieces from a provision members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee removed from Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal.

Critics of the legislation have noted that no instances have been reported of protesters shutting down speakers on UW campuses — although controversial speakers have sparked protests. 

Students clashed on the UW-Madison campus in November, when conservative columnist Ben Shapiro delivered a speech titled "Dismantling Safe Spaces: Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings" to a crowd of about 450. After about 10 minutes of chaos, Shapiro responded to a shout of "F--- white supremacy" by flipping off the protesters with both hands.

Provocateur and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos ridiculed a transgender student by name while speaking in December at UW-Milwaukee. A scheduled Yiannopolos appearance at the University of California-Berkeley in February was canceled after it provoked a riot.

UW-Madison senior Savion Castro said last month he doesn't oppose speakers who espouse hurtful views on campus, but as an African-American, he should be able to protest someone who calls his race genetically inferior without fear of reprisal. Castro was alluding to "Bell Curve" author Charles Murray, who was shouted down several months ago at Middlebury College. Murray, at an event sponsored by UW student groups, spoke in Madison last month and was not disrupted.

The UW System has not taken a position on the proposal, but has said it is "committed to ensuring freedom of expression at our institutions."

Jessica Tormey, vice president for university relations and chief of staff for UW System President Ray Cross, said during a legislative hearing last month that the system needs to do "a better job at ensuring all voices are heard at our institutions," but urged lawmakers to ease up on the disciplinary measures prescribed under the bill.

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ACLU of Wisconsin legal director Larry Dupuis has called the mandatory punishments laid out under the bill "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," Dupuis said previously

Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. Murphy said the bill differentiates between "demonstration and disruption."

"You can demonstrate and carry signs out in front of venues, you can hand out leaflets, you can do all these kinds of things," Murphy said. "What the bill really is about is ending disruption, and I think that’s the focus that we have here."

The bill requires "free expression" orientations for UW freshmen and requires university system institutions to remain neutral on controversial policy matters. Critics have questioned whether the so-called "neutrality clause" would prevent instructors from including controversial subjects in their curriculum.

Judith Burstyn, a chemistry professor and president of the faculty advocacy group PROFS, has said the provision could stifle academic debate, especially for professors whose research is in areas "within the realm of public policy or have implications for public policy."

Vos said the bill would have no effect on what happens in the classroom. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.