Legislative critics say a controversial campus free speech bill advanced by an Assembly committee Tuesday intrudes on the University of Wisconsin System’s authority to run its campuses.
The committee endorsed the bill after it was amended to diminish the UW System’s latitude on the punishment of students found to have interfered with the “expressive rights” of others.
An amendment offered by the bill’s author, Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, prescribes specific punishments, notably expulsion on a third strike. An earlier version of the bill outlined a range of possible punishments.
The revised bill also 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, a provision that its Democratic critics say makes it possible for any two people to force a student into disciplinary proceedings.
The hearings and their outcomes would be reported annually to a newly formed Council on Free Expression.
The bill, AB 299, passed the Committee on Colleges and Universities on an 8-6 vote along party lines following vigorous debate.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who testified in favor of the bill in front of the committee and called it one of the most important pieces of legislation of the session, is expected to bring it to the Assembly floor for a vote soon.
Advocacy groups, meanwhile, joined legislative critics in warning that the bill would squelch expression — not encourage it — despite its statement that anyone on campus lawfully may protest or demonstrate there.
One Wisconsin Now said the amendment made a bad bill worse. Allowing any two people to trigger an investigation into a student's protest activities will exacerbate an existing chilling atmosphere on free expression for students of color, said Savion Castro, a UW-Madison student and research assistant at the nonprofit organization.
“The bill's authors have no clue what it is like to walk into a lecture hall of 200 people and be the only person of color. This amendment would intimidate students of color from speaking out against injustice for fear of making white people uncomfortable,” Castro said in a press release.
PROFS, the advocacy organization of the UW-Madison Faculty Senate, went on record against the bill Tuesday, saying its ambiguous language could result in a "chilling effect" on speech on campus.
Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said that if made law, the bill will introduce a “constant kerfuffle” on UW campuses.
“It invites considerable turmoil,” Wachs said. “The functional reality will likely lead to people of one political persuasion reporting people of another political persuasion with a mandatory investigation to follow.”
Wachs said he did not understand why the legislature would make such an incursion into the UW’s sphere of authority.
The law would not only take power away from the university, said Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, but also may violate students’ privacy rights under federal law.
The proposed legislation finds that in recent years, UW institutions “have abdicated their responsibility to uphold free speech principles,” something that critics challenged.
Rep. Jill Billings, D-LaCrosse, said the bill was “a solution in search of a problem. I feel free speech issues are being handled well on campus.”
Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, told committee members he recently spoke with graduating high school seniors about the bill and the students – liberal and conservative alike – said it was “government meddling.”
“I believe it is overreach and it will cause more problems than it will solve,” Vruwink said.
Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, likened the bill to a cancer that will “metastasize into lawsuit after lawsuit over the intrusion on free speech rights of the student body.”
Students choosing to protest against offensive speech will have their lives “completely upended for having exercised their free speech rights,” he said.
Kremer said the bill was a lawful tool to protect constitutional rights. "We have a duty to make sure our freedom and liberty are protected,” he said. (University officials) “have not done a good job of it.”
The bill as revised requires:
- A minimum one-semester suspension for students twice found responsible for interfering with the expressive rights of others;
- Expulsion of students found responsible three times for interfering with the expressive rights of others.
An earlier version of the bill on which the committee hosted a public hearing on May 11 required a punishment ranging from a one-semester suspension to expulsion for a student twice found to have interfered with others’ free speech rights.
The amended bill also simplifies language describing the kind of behavior that could lead to disciplinary action to: “violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the free expression of others.”
The bill approved at committee also calls for a smaller Council on Free Expression to oversee enforcement of the law’s requirements than outline in earlier versions.
The council to be created by the Board of Regents now would have nine members instead of a minimum of 15. Added are three members of the public, and a member of the Board of Regents.
Representation of UW System campuses would be: one from a university with doctorate programs; one from a university without doctorate programs; one from the UW Colleges or Extension.
The chairpersons of the Assembly and Senate committees overseeing higher education — appointed by the majority political party — would also have membership on the committee.