UW Regents propose substantial new free speech protections

The provision is among the more controversial elements of model legislation crafted by the Goldwater Institute, and is intended to eliminate the so-called "heckler's veto" that is frequently used to silence conservatives.

The University of Wisconsin system’s Board of Regents will vote Friday on a “Freedom of Expression” policy that would punish those who deliberately disrupt others’ right to speak.

The University of Wisconsin system’s Board of Regents will vote Friday on a “Freedom of Expression” policy that would punish those who deliberately disrupt others’ right to speak.

The proposed policy, titled “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” includes a statement that reaffirms UW’s commitment to freedom of expression, along with several other provisions contained in model free speech legislation crafted by the Goldwater Institute.

Also consistent with the Goldwater model is an element designed to eliminate the so-called “heckler's veto” by punishing students who prevent others from expressing their opinions, as well as a requirement that all UW institutions address issues regarding freedom of expression during student orientation.

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“[I]t is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” the proposal states. “Although the university greatly values civility, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community.”

Under the policy, the second time that a student “is alleged to have engaged in violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others,” the student will be subject to a formal investigation and a disciplinary hearing.

Students who are twice found responsible for substantially disrupting others’ right to speak would be subject to a minimum one-semester suspension, and a third violation could result in outright expulsion.

Faculty members and staff who disrupt the free speech of others on campus, however, would enjoy employment protections outlined in university policy and state law, according to The Cap Times.

The policy also explicitly states that the campus community cannot “obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others, including speakers who are invited to campus, to express views they reject or even loathe.”

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Several members of the school’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter were even given input on the proposal.

“After the Shapiro event and other happenings on campus, we were scared about the Heckler's Veto becoming a permanent strategy for the left in silencing groups with opinions outside their point of view,” YAL President Tyler Brandt told Campus Reform.

“I feel that it is appropriate to punish those who deliberately try to stop someone's freedom of expression,” he added. “This is an act of hostility to open discourse, one of the most important principles of a liberal democracy. With no action being taken against these ne'er-do-wells, they continue to use the Hecklers Veto as a prominent strategy.”

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UW-Madison College Republicans President Jake Lubenow told Campus Reform that he thinks that this proposal is a step in the right direction.

“We’ve seen problems across the country with campuses disrespecting the right to speak, especially for conservative students,” Lubenow said. “We haven’t been immune to that in Wisconsin and we’re excited that both the Assembly and the regents are pursuing action to make sure that right applies to everyone.”

When asked if he thinks it is appropriate to punish someone who disrupts another person's right to speak, Lubenow replied, “absolutely.”

“Prohibiting speech is counter to the Wisconsin idea of sifting and winnowing and these punishments should ensure that both the speaker and protester have the ability to voice their opinion,” he elaborated. “Disrupting that should certainly have ramifications and this policy goes a long way in doing that.”

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