Parts of a 2015 statement from the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents supporting the open exchange of ideas on campus — including those considered offensive — would become state law under a proposal in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget.
The budget provision would write into statute, often word for word, large chunks of the Regents’ statement, which was written with help from a group of UW professors and inspired by free speech controversies at other universities.
The measure comes as conservative lawmakers in Wisconsin and across the country criticize university policies and student protests against controversial speakers on campus, and propose legislation they say is meant to protect free speech.
But it’s unclear what practical impact Walker’s proposal would have at UW institutions.
Similar legislation in other states would require universities to punish students who disrupt campus speakers, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, but Walker’s provision does not take that step.
Still, the governor’s executive budget includes $10,000 “for any administration costs to update UW’s policies” as a result of the free speech law, said Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Walker.
UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis did not say what policy changes the budget provision could require, saying it “was not something the UW System requested.”
“We look forward to working with the governor and Legislature on this topic,” Marquis said.
The Regents’ statement, which the board approved at its December 2015 meeting, was described at the time as UW officials reaffirming their commitment to free speech.
Using nearly identical language from the Regents’ statement, Walker’s budget says UW institutions “shall guarantee all members of the System’s community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”
While people may have conflicting opinions, “It is not the proper role of the board or any institution or college campus to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” the proposal reads in another passage taken from the Regents’ statement.
Donald Downs, a UW-Madison professor emeritus of political science and constitutional law who helped write the statement, said in 2015 that it could provide protections for professors or others accused of making controversial statements, and also had a “very significant symbolic effect.”
Former Regent Jose Vásquez, one of two board members who voted against the statement, said it seemed to him like a solution in search of a problem.
“I haven’t heard from anyone saying ‘We’re not being allowed to express ourselves’” at UW institutions, Vásquez said in 2015.