State Rep. David Murphy, a Republican from the Fox River Valley community of Greenville, fashions himself as the free speech expert for the University of Wisconsin campuses.
He was at the forefront of the Legislature's hissy fit a couple years ago over heckling at certain campus guest appearances, mostly by controversial right-wing speakers like the notorious Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro, both of whom are known for intentionally provoking demonstrations to create controversy in order to generate attention for themselves.
Murphy and the ultraconservative Rep. Jesse Kramer, a former Assembly member from Kewaskum, authored a so-called Campus Free Speech Act last year that called for discipline against students who prevent speakers from being heard. Each of the campuses already had rules about disrupting speakers, but the discipline was left to campus officials to decide. This would make discipline mandatory, apparently because legislators know better.
The concept was later adopted by then Gov. Scott Walker's Board of Regents. A student twice found responsible for disrupting "freedom of expression" is to be suspended and should one do it three times, kicked out of school. There are about a dozen other restrictive provisions in the regents' new policy.
Many of the students involved in the demonstrations, which were occurring on campuses around the country, insisted they were personally offended by what they considered hate speech and didn't feel safe on campus.
Many legislators apparently concluded it was time for these overly sensitive kids to suck it up and learn to live with the idea that everyone has the right to free speech on campus. Life is full of conflicts and no one should expect to be immune, they said.
"Nowhere is it more important to uphold the right to free speech than at our public universities," declared Murphy in a column he disseminated around the state.
It didn't take a genius to recognize, however, that the real goal was to further conservatives' contentions that campuses only welcome liberals to speak and these new rules would make it safe for conservatives to speak.
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson, a Milwaukee Democrat and an African-American, remarked, "It's disappointing that the UW System Board of Regents are willing to consider a policy that will give control to people coming to our campus preaching hate and that we are threatening expulsion for students who stand up to hateful rhetoric and actions."
It's now another year and Murphy doesn't seem as enamored of free speech guarantees. Only a few weeks ago, he stuck his nose into another campus issue — this one involving a syllabus that UW political science professor Ken Mayer uses to describe a course, The American Presidency, that he's teaching.
The syllabus, which students can use to decide whether to take the course, says that the Trump presidency is the most "unconventional presidency in American history, with a president who gleefully flouts the norms of governing and presidential behavior that have structured the office since George Washington." It goes on to say Trump supporters "rejoice in his contempt for what they insist is a corrupt D.C. establishment. If elites are against it, Trump's supporters are for it."
Now if that isn't an accurate description of Trump's presidency, nothing is.
Nevertheless, it offended student McKenna Collins, a former Miss Wisconsin, young Republican, senior in communications arts and WKOW-TV reporter. She said the description left her feeling intimidated and excluded. She posted her chagrin on Facebook and Murphy took over from there. In letters to UW President Ray Cross, Chancellor Rebecca Blank and members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, he accused Mayer of writing a "politically polarized characterization of the Trump presidency."
Collins added that the syllabus was more evidence of liberal bias on the Madison campus, but then later said that after talking with Mayer she was confident his class wouldn't take sides and her views would be respected.
Murphy, though, had no response to whether he was trampling the free speech rights of an academic. Seems that shutting up a suspected liberal professor because a student claims to be intimidated doesn't violate free speech rights, but students shouting down a conservative provocateur does.
But Murphy has never been consistent. He picks and chooses college targets that, in his mind, are "prejudiced," and as Madison Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor commented, "(Murphy) is once again attacking academic freedom and First Amendment rights in the university community. He has no business censoring legitimate speech on campus! It seems to me that he only supports speech that conforms to his right-wing ideology."
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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