The Republican sponsor of a proposed bill that would require University of Wisconsin campuses to create a system to punish students who disrupt the free expression of others says he expects Democratic support.
Liberal speakers are potentially as vulnerable to being silenced as are conservatives, Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, told Joy Cardin on Wisconsin Public Radio Monday. “This goes both ways," he said.
“I have Democrats talking with me about this bill,” Kremer said. “Wisconsin Democrats are fairly silent on this issue right now — I think this is going to be a bipartisan bill."
The Campus Free Speech Act, now being circulated for sponsors, requires campuses to define a range of disciplinary sanctions for students and others under university jurisdiction. Students accused of interfering with free expression would be entitled to a disciplinary hearing under published procedures, including the right to present a defense, to the assistance of counsel and to appeal.
A student who is twice found to have interfered with the expressive rights of others would receive a minimum punishment of one semester suspension on up to expulsion, under the proposed bill.
Kremer may want bipartisan support, but Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, is not ready to back the bill.
“No one has a right to cause damage or prevent another person’s right to speak; however, there are already university rules and state law that protect people against harassment and violence, so it is not clear any new legislation is needed,” Barca said in a statement Monday.
“This bill is too overly broad and subjective, especially when you allow penalties for things like being ‘too boisterous.’ I care deeply about the First Amendment and free speech, and that’s why I certainly cannot support this bill in its current form,” he said.
Other Democrats also are criticizing the legislation.
“I disagree strongly that the university needs us to tell them how to handle this,” Rep. Therese Berceau, a Democrat representing Madison, told the Wisconsin State Journal, calling the issue an "artificial, political controversy." Democratic Rep. Dianne Hesselbein said the bill might protect one student's right to free speech at the expense of another's.
The UW Board of Regents in 2015 formally reaffirmed its commitment to freedom of expression.
State governments are taking up the issue following a string of protests of conservative speakers at colleges across the country, including Ben Shapiro at UW-Madison last November, when protesters briefly stopped his speech by drowning him out with their chants.
Protests at some other schools have gone beyond drowning out the speaker. A scheduled appearance by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley in February touched off a riot that forced its cancellation. In March, protesters at Middlebury College in Vermont forced controversial social scientist Charles Murray to give his speech from a private room and later attacked a professor who was injured in the melee.
Legislation similar to that proposed in Wisconsin — and also based on model legislation by the conservative Goldwater Institute — has been introduced by Republicans in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
In a different approach in North Dakota, a bill that would prohibit public colleges from restricting speech on campus was before the legislature, according to the Chronicle.
In Colorado, a bill banning campus “free speech zones” in favor of explicit campus-wide freedom of expression garnered bipartisan support to send it to the governor’s desk.
The national group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, worked with the Colorado ACLU to help pass that bill, the Colorado Independent reported.
The Wisconsin ACLU opposes the mandatory discipline spelled out in Kremer's bill, the State Journal reported. The requirement is “unnecessarily draconian and actually chills the potential exchange of ideas that controversial speakers provoke,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director for ACLU-Wisconsin.
A Colorado ACLU spokesperson, meanwhile, told the Independent she doesn’t believe there is a liberal or conservative view on the First Amendment, and the ACLU long has taken the position of protecting free speech, including offensive speech. The answer to offensive speech, she said, is merely more speech.
That’s what Kremer said Monday.
Speech that some find offensive is protected under the Constitution, he said. ”Just because we don’t agree with it, or it might hurt our feelings or it’s something we don’t like to hear, doesn’t mean it should not be allowed,” he said. “The goal of universities is to challenge evil speech with more and better speech.”
Protesting speech — like carrying signs and leafletting outside a speech venue — would be allowed under his bill, Kremer said. Preventing someone from speaking would not. That includes "booing" someone, he said. "Heckling someone during a speech is not allowed, because it inhibits free speech."
Buttressing his argument that free speech is bipartisan, Kremer quoted Robert Reich, the UC Berkeley professor and former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton.
“Free speech is what universities are all about. If universities don’t do everything possible to foster and protect it, they aren’t universities. They’re playpens,” Reich wrote on his blog.
Kremer admitted Monday that the bill as now written is likely unconstitutional because the description of prohibited forms of protest is too broad.
But some minor tweaking of the language will resolve that, Kremer said.
The language of the proposed bill would subject to discipline anyone “who engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”
Kremer said Monday he would introduce an amendment to add language to further describe prohibited behavior as that which “materially and substantially disrupts free expression and free speech” to make it conform to law under the U.S. Constitution.
The bill elaborates on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill provision — since removed by the Joint Finance Committee — calling on UW to codify its commitment to free expression.
That statement of commitment by the UW Board of Regents reads in part: “Each institution in the University of Wisconsin System has a solemn responsibility not only to promote lively and fearless exploration, deliberation, and debate of ideas, but also to protect those freedoms when others attempt to restrict them. Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community (or those outside the community) to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”
Walker sounded some similar themes in his comments in support of Kremer's bill Sunday on “Upfront with Mike Gousha."
"To me, a university should be precisely the spot where you have an open and free dialogue about all different positions," Walker said. "But the minute you shut down a speaker, no matter whether they are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, I just think that's wrong."