UW regents green-light creation of policy punishing speech disruption

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents gave the university system the green light to start writing policy which would punish students for disrupting free speech.

However, the state’s Democrat governor has indicated he will veto the policy.

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents has approved a “scope statement,” which permits the university to establish a policy to punish students who disrupt free speech.

The policy was passed in 2017, but hasn’t been able to take effect yet since the system rules have not been updated, according to The Star Tribune. The move by the board solidifies the 2017 free speech policy, and gives the university system permission to begin formally writing the rule.

The policy would institute a mandatory minimum on disciplinary action if University of Wisconsin students are found to have “materially and substantially” disrupted the free speech rights of others, as reported by Wisconsin Public Radio.

If a student receives two formal complaints alleging they have disrupted the free speech of others, an investigation and disciplinary hearing is required, according to The Cap Times.

If found guilty, the student will be suspended for at least one semester.

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After a student is found to have “materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others” a third time, they will be expelled.

University employees would not be subject to discipline under the new policy, as they would have employment protections, according to the original policy passed in 2017.

With that being said, according to the Tribune, the state’s Democrat Gov. Tony Evers plans to veto the policy when it gets to his desk.

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Free speech nonprofit the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is also not in favor of the policy.

It claims that the language defining a free speech “disruption” is too broad and could end up chilling speech, especially with a “mandatory minimum” punishment in place.

“We think that the policy doesn’t provide students and administrators sufficient guidance about what is and is not protected expression under its terms, and that uncertainty will result in a chilling effect at best, and the punishment of protected expression at worst,” Will Creeley, FIRE’s vice president of legal and public advocacy, told Campus Reform.

Creeley did comment on an October instance at Georgetown University where former acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan was heckled out of a speech, saying that the students’ actions were antithetical to free speech. 

“That’s illiberal, and has no place on a college campus and is antithetical to a liberal education and to liberal democracy,” Creeley told Campus Reform. “So folks who engage in that kind of intentional disruption should properly face sanction.”

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When the policy passed in 2017, Jake Lubenow, the former president of the University of Wisconsin - Madison College Republicans chapter told Campus Reform that it is “absolutely” appropriate to punish students who violate someone’s right to speak.

“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,” Lubenow elaborated. “Disrupting that should certainly have ramifications and this policy goes a long way in doing that,” he said.

”Since this policy originally went into effect, UW–Madison has published protest guidelines to help individuals and groups plan for events such as guest speakers, protests, and counter-protests and to provide students with behavior expectations as they participate in such activities,” University of Wisconsin-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone told Campus Reform. “These are now in their second year of use and are working well.”

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