My UW-Madison graduating class marked its 55th anniversary this year, giving us a front-row seat to just how much times have changed, particularly when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot.
Back in the '50s and '60s, the conservatives of the time — the political ancestors of today's Robin Voses, Jesse Kremers and Steve Nasses — were also declaring war on the university, its students and faculty. But instead of today's legislative crusades to protect right-wingers when they speak on campus, they were busy trying to keep the left-wingers from speaking at all.
One of the most intense battles during those years centered around a planned appearance at the Memorial Union Theater by Gus Hall, the longtime chairman of the Communist Party USA.
The announcement of Hall's lecture infuriated the Republicans at the Capitol. They demanded that the UW put a halt to it. Some got busy crafting legislation to penalize such outrageous anti-patriotism. Others issued press releases urging the Board of Regents to put its collective foot down. Leaders of the American Legion insisted that if the speech took place, the UW president (there was no chancellor at the time) be fired. Some students vowed to make sure this commie wouldn't be heard.
As the '60s and its civil rights and then Vietnam War issues erupted, the outrage over the choice of campus speakers grew even more intense. Republican state senators demanded the resignation of UW President Fred Harvey Harrington for failing to stop student speakers who they claimed were fomenting anti-war demonstrations.
As the New Yorker magazine reported in last week's issue, then California Gov. Ronald Reagan, the hero of our legislative Republicans today, wanted to blackball Stokely Carmichael, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from appearing on University of California's Berkeley campus. Here in Madison, outrage boiled over an invitation to Angela Davis, the fireball anti-war and civil rights crusader. "Real" students were urged to protest these "un-American" speakers.
The Republicans of those days had no sympathy for the free speech rights of controversial figures like Gus Hall, Stokely Carmichael or Angela Davis and dozens more who held views that didn't, in their minds, deserve to be heard.
Yes, how those times change.
Today's Wisconsin politicians on the right have suddenly caught free speech fever, especially when it applies to people like Ben Shapiro, the Breitbart alumnus who is famed for his alt-right bigotry, and Milo Yiannopoulos, who delights in goading black students with outrageous comments. Both Shapiro and Yiannopoulos aren't above purposely creating the kind of student reaction that excuses conservative legislators to push legislation to "protect" them. The real objective is to cleverly create a perception that college campuses and their leaders aren't open to anything but left-wing speech.
Not surprisingly, the Wisconsin Legislature gleefully obliged. Although they haven't yet given final passage to a bill to punish students who shout down speakers, they exerted enough pressure so the Scott Walker-dominated Board of Regents has now done it for them. It's a tricky rule that calls for expelling students accused of thwarting speech on three different occasions, in some ways restricting the free speech rights of some so that others may have them.
Back in our day, the Board of Regents and the UW president resisted the calls of partisan politicians and the speeches took place, although not always without incident. Regardless, all sides were heard.
But don't bet that this current group of hardline conservatives will be quick to bellow "free speech" to protect speakers from the left when they are the ones who get shouted down.
Don't laugh. In the Donald Trump era, that time might come, quicker than anyone thinks.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel
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