Wisconsin campus free speech debate a hot topic, even with students at home

The Wisconsin university system has been criticized for upholding unconstitutional free speech laws that infringe on students’ rights, leading the Wisconsin Assembly to pass in February a bill aimed at preventing disruption of protected speech, and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents to recently adopt a similar rule that would sanction anyone who does so. 

The Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill that would require the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin to adopt a policy on free expression. Assembly Bill 444, passed in February, applies to four-year and two-year institutions of the University of Wisconsin system. The new policy revokes existing policies or rules that restrict freedom of expression. 

The Wisconsin Board of Regents voted Thursday in favor of similar rules, as reported by local media. 

Rep. Shae Sortwell, described the events leading up to the passage of this bill to Campus Reform, saying, “this bill came about, not only due to the national trend of free speech suppression on college campuses, but we also had some local stories pushing this, including the story of Polly Olsen who tried to hand out Valentines that said ‘Jesus loves you’ at her college campus at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay.”

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This bill outlines that it is not the proper role of an institution to prevent individuals from engaging in speech protected by the Constitution. 

”Students and faculty have the freedom to discuss any problem as permitted by the First Amendment and within specified limits,” it states. The legislation allows for demonstrations and protests on college campuses, provided they do not disrupt others’ speech. 

”That any person lawfully present on campus may protest or demonstrate, but that protests and demonstrations that interfere with the expressive rights of others are subject to sanction; that campuses are open to invited speakers; that public areas are public forums and open on the same terms to any speaker; and that institutions must remain neutral on public policy controversies,” the legislation states. 

Sortwell told Campus Reform that Democrats “predictably didn’t want any bill of this type because they held that current practices were fine.”

According to the bill, individuals who disrupt free expression on the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Technical College System campuses twice are subject to suspension and, if they violate the free speech of others three times, they would be expelled from the institutions. 

[RELATED: Wisconsin lawmakers hop on campus free speech bandwagon]

But Sortwell said the bill “has the potential to be abused by corrupt school officials to repress speech.” 

Similarly, J.P. Kirby, director of free speech at Young Americans for Liberty, told Campus Reform that “this bill has provisions that would make it very easy for students to be suspended and even expelled if the university administration disapproved of their method of counter-protesting.”

He added it is “another example of politicians trying to fix a problem and actually making it worse for the people they say they’re trying to protect.” 

While he is not in favor of this particular bill, Sortwell agrees that some action is needed to help ensure free speech on campus. However, he’s not optimistic that will happen, at least not while Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is in office. 

“I don’t believe it will have an effect on WI because I expect the Democrat Governor Evers will veto the bill because he agrees with his party that what is happening on college campuses is perfectly acceptable,” Sortwell said.

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