Sift and winnow plaque

The UW System Board Regents approved a policy in support of free speech that members say is in line with the values laid out in the board's famous "sifting and winnowing" declaration.

A controversial policy dictating how students at University of Wisconsin campuses are punished for disrupting campus speeches and presentations may be written into state code.

The UW System Board of Regents approved a resolution Friday calling for a preliminary public hearing on the board’s free speech policy, the first step in a long process to codify the policy into administrative code, the thousands of pages of rules written by state agencies to implement state law.

The hearing could draw a fresh round of criticism from detractors who argue the policy is too vague and ends up chilling students from exercising free speech out of fear of punishment.

A lone Regent on the 18-member board — Karen Walsh, who was recently appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — voted against the measure, saying she was uncomfortable with the sanctions laid out for students in violation of the policy.

The Regents passed a three-strike free speech policy in the fall of 2017.

It requires UW campuses to suspend students who disrupt the free expression of others in a substantial way after a second time. If students are found to have done so three times, they are expelled.

“I worry about whether we can effectively and safely judge what a strike means,” Walsh said at the meeting. “Is that the same thing at River Falls and Barron County and Madison and Milwaukee? … These issues are not as black and white as we’d like them to be.”

Another Regent, state Superintendent Carolyn Stanford-Taylor, voted with the majority, but questioned why the hearing is scheduled for Aug. 13, a time when most students aren’t on campus.

Regent President Drew Petersen said the date was the first opportunity available to have a hearing and that there would be at least two more times for people to weigh in.

Meeting materials note the proposal to write the policy into code was approved by the governor and Department of Administration.

Walker-backed

System spokesman Jack Jablonski said former Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed onto it about a year ago.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff confirmed Friday that Evers still opposes the policy, which he voted against when he served on the board at the time of its adoption. He said then that it was “a solution seeking a problem.”

None of the 13 four-year campuses reported any free speech complaints by students nor employees through June 30, 2018, according to System records.

Support voiced

Several other Regents, most of whom were appointed by Walker, reiterated their support for the policy Friday and said consequences are needed if repeated disruption were to occur.

“Compared to other campuses, I think we’re doing really well,” Regent Jose Delgado said, referring to free speech protections.

The policy’s adoption came in response to what Republicans see as growing hostility from liberals on college campuses to conservative ideas. UW-Madison students in 2016 briefly shouted down and traded obscene gestures with conservative columnist Ben Shapiro before his event continued.

The free speech policy was a topic of conversation last fall when UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow brought a former porn star to speak to students as part of a Free Speech Week exercise. The invitation sparked several opinion pieces in the La Crosse Tribune, including disapproving ones by System President Ray Cross and Regent Bob Atwell.

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Kelly Meyerhofer covers higher education for the Wisconsin State Journal. She can be reached at 608-252-6106 or kmeyerhofer@madison.com.

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