University of Wisconsin System students who disrupt speeches on campus could face expulsion under a bill circulated Thursday by Republican lawmakers.
The bill would also require universities to stay neutral on public policy controversies. The intent of that provision is to bar universities from forcing faculty or students to take a particular viewpoint, an aide to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said.
The legislation comes amid a growing national focus on political speech on college campuses. Its supporters say the bill's intent is to ensure all viewpoints can be heard and debated at public universities, but opponents fear the requirements are too subjective and could curb free speech rather than expand it.
"I think we should have more speech on campus," Vos told reporters. "If they want to bring in very liberal activists to be able to tell their story of why they believe in what believe or they want to bring in conservative folks to do the exact same thing, we should allow them the opportunity to be heard, questioned, debated at the appropriate time — but not just having somebody stand up and try to shout them down or block access to the event."
The bill is similar to others being considered throughout the country, modeled after sample legislation prepared by the conservative Goldwater Institute, and takes some pieces from a provision members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee removed from Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal.
The goal is to allow the "maximum amount of free speech that we possibly can" so students can "hear from all sides and make up their own minds," Vos said.
Introduced by Vos, Reps. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and David Murphy, R-Greenville, and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, the bill would require the UW Board of Regents to adopt a policy stating that students and faculty "have the freedom to discuss any problem as permitted by the First Amendment and within specified limits" and that anyone lawfully on campus may protest or demonstrate but that "protests and demonstrations that interfere with the expressive rights of others are subject to sanction."
The policy would include a range of sanctions for those who violate it by engaging in "violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct" that interferes with someone's free speech rights, and any student who violates it twice would be suspended for a semester or expelled.
Larry Dupuis, legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, called that provision "unnecessarily draconian" and said it could have a chilling effect on "the potential exchange of ideas that controversial speakers provoke."
"A heckler can be legally removed from an invited speaker's presentation, but the extreme sanction of suspension or expulsion could chill legitimate, but pointed, questions from the audience," Dupuis said.
Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, said the bill puts UW regents in the position of determining things like "how loud is too loud" and could result in one student's free speech rights being protected at the expense of another's.
"I believe strongly in free speech, and I think we have it now," Hesselbein said.
Laws already exist to punish people for violent actions, Hesselbein said, also questioning whether the bill is solving any existing problems.
Students clashed on the UW-Madison campus in November, when conservative columnist Ben Shapiro delivered a speech titled "Dismantling Safe Spaces: Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings" to a crowd of about 450. After about 10 minutes of chaos, Shapiro responded to a shout of "F--- white supremacy" by flipping off the protesters with both hands.
Provocateur and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos ridiculed a transgender student by name while speaking in December at UW-Milwaukee, and a scheduled appearance at the University of California-Berkeley in February was canceled after it provoked a riot.
The UW System is "committed to ensuring freedom of expression at our institutions," said spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis.
"The authors have assured us they will work with us moving forward to maintain the free exchange of ideas throughout the UW System," Marquis said.