ben shapiro speech (copy)

UW-Madison student Cody Fearing, center, leads a protest of the appearance of conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro (at right in blue shirt) on campus in November. 

Republican lawmakers would require University of Wisconsin System institutions to discipline and potentially expel students who disrupt speeches on campus, and mandate that UW stay neutral on political controversies.

Prompted, its sponsors say, by battles over free speech at UW-Madison and universities across the country, the bill makes Wisconsin the latest state in which lawmakers have sought to ensure controversial ideas are presented on college campuses by limiting the sometimes disruptive tactics of their opponents.

“We are making a pretty clear statement here that free expression should not be inhibited and will not be inhibited,” said Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, the bill’s lead author.

Other authors of the legislation being circulated for co-sponsorship include Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and the chairpersons of the Legislature’s higher education committees, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, and Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville.

The liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now blasted the proposal as an attempt “to create mandatory safe spaces where conservatives, Republicans, racists and sexists can be exempt from criticism by their peers on campuses across Wisconsin.”

And UW officials responded that universities already have policies in place to protect free expression and punish students who violate those rules.

The bill’s name, the Campus Free Speech Act, and much of its content mirror model legislation drafted by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank based in Arizona. Pieces of the legislation are also similar to a provision that lawmakers removed from Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 state budget proposal earlier this month.

Under the bill, the UW Board of Regents would be required to develop a free expression policy stating that universities’ “primary function ... is the discovery, improvement, transmission and dissemination of knowledge,” and that it is not the role of an institution “to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment,” according to an analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau.

The legislation also directs the Regents to create a discipline policy — including hearing procedures and a range of sanctions — for anyone affiliated with a UW institution who “interferes with the free expression of others,” such as by disrupting a speech.

A student found to have violated the policy twice would be subject to a suspension of at least one semester under the bill, or could be expelled.

Speakers who feel their free speech rights were violated at a UW campus could sue the institution for damages under the bill. And the legislation would create a council of UW officials that would report to lawmakers on the outcomes of discipline proceedings.

Meant to restrict ‘heckler’s veto’

The legislation aims to restrict what is often referred to as a heckler’s veto — a tactic in which demonstrators disrupt an opponent’s speech to the point that it can’t be delivered.

Protests that confronted political scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont and demonstrations that turned violent at the University of California-Berkeley against conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos earlier this year have become flash points in debates over free expression on college campuses.

Republicans say similar tactics were used locally last fall when students protested a lecture by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at UW-Madison.

According to an account of the Nov. 16 protest from The Badger Herald, demonstrators interrupted Shapiro’s talk, at one point forming a line in front of the stage where he was speaking.

The protesters left the room several minutes later and Shapiro continued with his speech and a question-and-answer session after the demonstration, the Herald reported. But Kremer said the students should have faced discipline from UW-Madison for interrupting the talk.

“They’re inhibiting free speech,” Kremer said.

He felt the same way about more common and less disruptive protests — such as, for instance, a heckler who interrupts a speech for a few moments before leaving an event.

“That’s something that cannot be tolerated,” Kremer said, and should be subject to sanctions.

Should lawmakers

get involved?

Democrats countered that protesters who disrupt events are already subject to university discipline and potential criminal charges for disorderly conduct.

“I disagree strongly that the university needs us to tell them how to handle this,” said Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison. “I frankly think it’s an artificial, political controversy — and as long as we perpetuate artificial, political controversies we won’t solve problems.”

UW-Madison officials say they share lawmakers’ goal of ensuring free expression on campus but said policies on the books now “allow institutions to both maintain order and discipline students who violate standards of conduct.”

A UW System spokeswoman noted the Board of Regents approved a policy in 2015 supporting free expression and saying universities must not suppress the exchange of ideas, even if some find them offensive or wrong.

Requiring certain sanctions, such as the mandatory suspension detailed in the bill, would mean campus disciplinary committees would not have the power to impose appropriate punishments, UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said.

“We urge the Legislature to work with the Board of Regents to identify policies that will address the free exchange of ideas and need for order, while respecting the existing student conduct process that has served institutions well for many years,” Lucas said.

Requiring UW neutrality

The bill also requires that UW institutions “strive to remain neutral on the public policy controversies of the day, and may not ... require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.”

The section appears to mandate that UW stay out of all political debates, which could restrict universities’ ability to lobby lawmakers or the public on issues such as the state budget and legislation that affects higher education. Campus officials also occasionally weigh in on issues such as underage drinking, racial discrimination and sexual assault in university statements.

Kremer and Murphy said the provision seeks to prohibit UW institutions from requiring that employees or students espouse certain viewpoints, and is not meant to bar UW from lobbying. Murphy said the section’s wording may need to be clarified.

But Vos took a different tack, saying that while UW leaders can speak about issues as individuals, institutions as a whole should not advocate for one side of a debate.

“It’s not appropriate for the university to take political positions,” Vos said.

State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this report.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.