UW Regent: Punishing disruptive protests will 'chill speech'

Tony Evers predicts that the new policy will "chill speech" on college campuses by punishing students who repeatedly disrupt the free speech of others, saying the provision could be applied to "any sort of protest."

The only University of Wisconsin Regent to vote against a new free speech policy is now speaking out against what he sees as a Republican vendetta against UW.

The only University of Wisconsin Regent to vote against a new free speech policy is now speaking out against what he sees as a Republican vendetta against UW.

The UW system’s Board of Regents recently voted 16-1 in favor of the new policy imposing punishments on students found guilty of violating others’ free speech rights on campus, with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers casting the sole dissenting vote.

[RELATED: UW Regents propose substantial new free speech protections]

Evers explained his position in an op-ed for Urban Milwaukee recently, saying he voted against the “dangerous anti-free speech proposal” because he believes that it “will, without question, chill speech at college campuses across Wisconsin.”

Of particular concern to Evers is a provision requiring disciplinary hearings for any student who is “alleged to have engaged in violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others,” with punishments ranging from a one-semester suspension for students who are twice found in violation of the policy, to outright expulsion after a third offense.

“The term ‘disrupt’ itself is overly broad and gives the university the means to expel a student for participating in any sort of protest,” Evers contends, adding that the UW System does not currently mandate expulsion for “serious crimes like rape and sexual assault.”

[RELATED: Wisconsin Dems complain free speech bill targets UW-Madison]

“Proponents of this anti-free speech legislation argue liberal biases have overwhelmed our college campuses, but they cannot provide one single example of a conservative speaker being unable to complete their remarks at any college or university in Wisconsin,” he continues, speculating that the real reason his colleagues voted in favor of it was to ingratiate themselves with Republican politicians.

“The only political problem we have on our UW campuses is the politicians themselves,” he declares. “Some of my own colleagues on the Board of Regents even acknowledged this in their own remarks on this proposal, hoping that passage of this resolution would strengthen the Board of Regents relationship with the Republican-controlled Legislature.”

According to Evers, “Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have had an ax to grind with [the] UW System since assuming power in 2011,” as evidenced by cuts to higher education funding, a law allowing the Board of Regents to dismiss tenured professors, and the creation of a free speech center at UW-Madison.

[RELATED: Liberals mock UW free speech center as ‘GOP safe space’]

“As a proud alum of UW-Madison, I take this personally,” he writes, later adding that “I am sick and tired of watching ideologues systematically dismantle an institution that has created tens of thousands of jobs and improved the lives of countless Wisconsinites.”

Evers concludes by noting that he has spoken with “dozens” of students who feel “sold out, used, or simply not heard” following adoption of the new policy, but UW-Madison student Bailey La Sage offered a very different reaction.

“[The policy] is a further protection to ensure that free speech is preserved on UW campuses and is needed following many disruptions of conservative speakers, especially at UW-Madison,” La Sage told Campus Reform.

[RELATED: Conservative student shamed for criticizing diversity course]

Rather than chilling speech, La Sage argues that the new policy may actually encourage organizations to bring more speakers to campus, secure in the knowledge that administrators will prevent disruptions.

“When you are disrupting someone while speaking, it prevents them from being able to spread the ideas they hold, ones that may make others rethink and gain a new perspective on an issue,” La Sage explained. “University campuses are supposed to be about the diversity of thought, and it is impossible to have that with disruptions from students who won’t hear an opposing view.”

Campus Reform reached out to Evers for comment, but did not receive a response.

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