Bascom Plaque

The “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque mounted on the front of Bascom Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

M.P. KING -- State Journal

The Capital Times has defended campus free speech since the days when U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette and Capital Times founder William T. Evjue were burned in effigy by pro-World War I militarists at UW-Madison.

We have defended the rights of liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, anarchists and corporatists. And we will continue to do so because we believe that the best way to defend our First Amendment rights is to use them.

As part of that defense, we have been ardent in our opposition to the attempt by the speech police in the state Legislature to restrict discourse on UW campuses — and to punish students who exercise their right to dissent in ways that do not please Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum.

Last week, Vos and Kremer engineered passage of a bill in the Assembly that would punish the exercise of free speech on University of Wisconsin campuses by suspending or expelling students who mount dissents against speakers the students believe to be fundamentally wrong, morally reprehensible or simply dishonest. Supporters of the legislation, which was approved with a 61-36 vote, suggest that it will protect fragile conservative speakers from interruptions by fact-wielding students.

But what Vos and Kremer propose is wide-ranging discrimination.

"I'm afraid it's going to intimidate students into silence — conservative students into silence," said state Rep. Bob Gannon, R-West Bend, who joined Democrats in opposing the measure.

If the state Senate and governor embrace Vos and Kremer's wrongheaded way of thinking, an ugly combination of intimidation and uncertainty will define the discourse on campuses where avid debate, and serious competition in the battle of ideas and ideals, should be the order of the day.

“Our colleges and universities should be a place to vigorously debate ideas and ultimately learn from one another," explains state Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison. "Instead, this campus gag rule creates an atmosphere of fear where free expression and dissent are discouraged."

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Noting that "there are already numerous laws on the books that protect free speech and punish those who are violent or disruptive," state Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, argued: "The crisis that Wisconsin Republicans are addressing in this bill is a manufactured one aimed at limiting exposure to differing opinions and creating extreme, unwarranted, and unnecessary punishments for exercising your right to protest."

Crowley is right. But ultimately it is more than protest that is endangered. The Vos-Kremer scheme would throw a wrench into the machinery of debate and discourse that underpins the Wisconsin Idea. It has for 12 decades been the basic premise of the University of Wisconsin that: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

That commitment to freedom of inquiry must never be bound and gagged by police-speech legislators and the advocates for a dumbed-down, politically corrected academia.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times