Assembly committee passes college free speech bill, requiring punishments for student violators

By: Yvonne Kim, The Cap Times 

A proposal that would force University of Wisconsin campuses to discipline students who disrupt public speeches is closer to becoming law.

The Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities passed a bill Thursday that would enforce mandatory disciplinary sanctions for student who disrupt others’ free speech, aiming to codify UW Board of Regents policy into state law.

Echoing party-line arguments made throughout last year, the representatives briefly discussed an amendment that expands the law to technical colleges and more specifically defines “materially and substantially disrupts.” Both the amendment and bill passed.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, continued to oppose the legislation. She called the discussion a “waste of resources” when the bill will likely be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. She said she hoped the committee would improve the bill prior to its passage.

“At a time when we could be working on real issues and other bills … (this) just shows a lack of faith in an ability to truly support folks and students at the UW System and the technical college system,” Shankland said. “I’m just generally disappointed that this bill came before us today.”

Evers has said he would veto the bill should it appear on his desk. While he sat on the Board of Regents, he was the only vote against similar free speech regulations in 2017.

The bill marks lawmakers’ second attempt to create mandatory punishments for free speech violations on Wisconsin campuses, after another bill died in the Senate in 2017. Cosponsored by Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, and Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, it requires suspension after two violations and expulsion after three.


It also requires universities to submit regular reports about free speech to the Board of Regents and allows people to anonymously report free speech violations.

Kapenga and supporters of the bill have said there is a “trend” across higher education of shutting down controversial speakers, a claim that gained ground most notably when conservatives objected to a student protest against a UW-Madison appearance by commentator Ben Shapiro in 2016.

Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine, read aloud from comments he had received from an Eau Claire constituent, who said the bill will “ensure that very conservative speakers are given every available venue to speak even when the vast majority of students may not want to hear their speeches.”

“I don’t believe we’re searching for a problem,” Wittke said. “I believe there’s an undercurrent of a problem that no one wants to recognize, and that is the fact that there are issues with people who are trying to stifle the thoughts and ideas of others.”

In response to Shankland’s criticisms that the Constitution already protects free speech rights, Committee Chair Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said that, as legislators, “we have institutions that we have oversight over and it’s appropriate for us to try to make sure Constitutional rights are upheld.”

Rep. Jill Billings, D-LaCrosse, disagreed, asking legislators to leave the issue up to universities and the Board of Regents.

“We do not need to insert ourselves here in a draconian way,” Billings said. “Campuses are the best at doing that sifting and winnowing and having discussion and bringing up ideas. If you look at our track record, campuses do a much better job than we do in this building."