STEVENS POINT — It’s good that some lawmakers are zeroing in on campus free speech these days. Maybe we can have a full discussion on this matter. There’s a lot to talk about.
Some state lawmakers would like to expel students who disrupt presentations by controversial speakers. In July, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents passed guidelines for free speech on campuses that were less punitive than lawmakers sought. The guidelines focused on promoting civil discourse on campuses, a worthy goal. "Without civility," UW System President Ray Cross said, "it is virtually impossible for the university to pursue its mission: the pursuit of truth."
Oddly, though, some of the same lawmakers who bill themselves as guardians of free speech for campus speakers don’t think citizens have the same rights.
In 2015, for instance, when the Legislature was considering a $300 million cut to the UW System, several legislators, led by Rep. Steve Nass of Whitewater, told the UW System not to encourage alumni to lobby against the cut, or they would make it bigger. Predictably, universities across the state abandoned plans for a day at the Capitol to lobby for funding for higher education. In the interest of free speech, do these lawmakers who denied the same rights to thousands of UW System graduates across the state want to explain why they issued this threat? The tradition of visiting the Capitol to lobby for your cause is an old one, and universities did it for years. Groups of all sorts do it, but the privilege is now denied for alumni supporters of the great economic drivers that our universities are in their communities.
On another topic, maybe state Sen. Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst would like to deny that he has told UW System educators not to teach about climate change? How’s that for denying free speech?
The idea that the likes of Nass and Tiffany advocate for free speech is a joke, and a bad one at that. The current majority has a history of limiting speech, either through cynical manipulation of the legislative process or rules about what spectators in the legislative galleries can do — sit still and shut up.
It has had a chilling effect across the state. I recently asked a university administrator whether it might be a good idea to develop a public program on how the changes to the state Department of Natural Resources have impacted the resources the DNR is supposed to protect. That went over like a cold wind in a greenhouse. As another UW System employee told me, “Who wants to take the risk?”
The UW System is far from alone on this. One longtime lobbyist for conservation causes told me awhile back that many lawmakers and their staffs don’t want to have anything to do with constituents who disagree with their positions. Actually, his words were that many lawmakers “despise their constituents.” Not all lawmakers act this way, and many offices are open and friendly. But anyone who knows his or her way around the Capitol also knows some offices are anything but welcoming, especially if you don’t agree with the lawmaker’s positions.
Republican lawmakers don’t have a monopoly on hypocrisy when it comes to free speech. Those who have paid attention to how government works have plenty of examples of Democrats and nonpartisan office-holders seeking to limit or minimize public input. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes not. And universities have their own history on this, too.
But the guys like Nass and Tiffany are another story. They are bullies who use their elective offices like a cudgel to beat down those who don’t agree with them.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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