The fault lines of a national debate over free speech in higher education were on display Thursday during a lengthy hearing on Republican legislation that would require University of Wisconsin institutions to discipline students who interrupt speakers.
The bill’s Republican authors and supporters argued the legislation will ensure their ideas can be presented on college campuses, and prevent what they described as disruptive and intimidating tactics used by liberal students and administrators to shut down conservatives.
Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, told the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities that he hopes the “Campus Free Speech Act,” which he introduced last month with Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and other lawmakers, will shift a “one-sided” culture at UW System institutions.
“Censorship has sprouted and is now flourishing in higher academia,” he said. “We have seen (a) gradual yet steady erosion of free expression and free speech within our own taxpayer-funded colleges and universities.”
Opponents questioned whether the legislation is needed, and said the proposal would put overly broad and unconstitutional restrictions on demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.
Savion Castro, a UW-Madison student who testified against the bill for liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said it would limit “my First Amendment right to object to harmful ideas” by protesting inflammatory speakers.
“We have the right to assert our humanity when it is questioned,” Castro said.
Democrats and others have taken issue with language in the bill that would prohibit students from disrupting speakers with conduct that is “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud” or otherwise disorderly — noting several of those categories of speech are protected under the First Amendment.
“This is such a subjective standard that’s being used, that it just begs for Big Brother coming in and telling people what they can say,” said Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire.
Kremer said he is considering amending the legislation so that it would bar actions that “materially and substantially disrupt” speakers.
“We’re going to change that,” he said near the end of the more than six-and-a-half hour hearing.
GOP: Campuses ‘hostile’ to our ideas
Assembly bill 299, which is based on model legislation from the conservative Goldwater Institute, would require the UW System Board of Regents to draft a policy committing campuses to the free and open exchange of ideas. It has 33 co-sponsors in the Assembly and Senate, all of them Republicans.
Along with its restrictions on disruptive protests, another source of controversy in the bill is its requirement that any student twice found responsible for interfering with the First Amendment rights of others receive a semesterlong suspension at minimum. It would also mandate that UW “strive to remain neutral” as an institution on political controversies.
Supporters of the legislation, including Vos and several conservative UW System students who testified at Thursday’s hearing, described it as an urgently needed correction to an academic culture they said is increasingly hostile to their ideas. Similar bills have been proposed in state legislatures across the country.
Speakers cited well-publicized, disruptive protests against controversial speakers at the University of California-Berkeley and Middlebury College in Vermont, as well as a demonstration that interrupted part of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s talk at UW-Madison last fall.
“Intolerance and physical aggression have replaced healthy debates and a free marketplace of ideas” at universities, Vos said. “We cannot have a debate if only one side is allowed to show up.”
UW System officials did not take a position on the legislation in their testimony, though they requested several changes to the bill, including dialing back the mandatory punishments it prescribes.
Still, Jessica Tormey, the System’s interim vice president for university relations, acknowledged Republican lawmakers’ concerns, saying UW officials “recognize the need to do a better job at ensuring all voices can be heard on our campuses — liberal and conservative alike.”
“We are looking for better ways to protect the free speech and expression of speakers, while also protecting the rights of protesters,” Tormey said.
Democrats question need for bill
Democrats took issue with the examples conservatives cited, leading at one point to a testy exchange between Kremer and Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, when Kremer brought up the Middlebury protest, in which a professor was injured in a confrontation with demonstrators.
“Let’s talk about Wisconsin,” Hebl interrupted. “This is not Middlebury.”
UW-Madison student Natalie Halbrooks, testifying against the legislation, said she does not feel the university “has this hostile climate where speakers are made to feel unsafe or students are made to feel unsafe.”
Hebl also questioned whether the legislation was necessary, since the UW System already has policies that spell out what protests are acceptable.
“Why do we need to add more than what we already have?” Hebl asked Vos and Kremer, echoing earlier questions in the hearing.
Kremer argued campuses haven’t acted on their existing rules to prevent disruptive protests.
“If the university system is not able to stem this conduct and the increasingly hostile shout-downs and heckler’s veto and censorship, this is the answer,” Kremer said of his bill.