Republican bill would punish universities, technical colleges for free speech violations

By Rich Kremer

A bill introduced by Republican state lawmakers would punish Wisconsin state universities and technical colleges for free speech or academic freedom violations. Campuses found to be in violation of the law would face financial penalties and potential lawsuits and would be forced to notify incoming students of any violations for the 10 years following the incident.

Wisconsin Republicans have been pushing the University of Wisconsin System to get tougher on students who disrupt free speech events on campuses since 2017. A prior bill, which failed, aimed to expel students who shout down or disrupt speakers, invited by student organization, three or more times.

In 2017, the UW Board of Regents passed a resolution that mirrored the bill. The regents' vote and legislation were spurred by incidents at places like the University of California, Berkeley where protests broke out after former Breitbart news editor Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak on campus. 

But the latest Republican initiative, introduced Thursday, focuses on punishing colleges and administrators rather than students.

Under the new bill, any campus that restricts when and where speech can happen or charges a fee for "additional security based on the anticipated content of speech or anticipated reaction to speech" more than one time within 10 years will face a litany of sanctions. Those include a potential loss of student grants from the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board, which would have to instead be paid using campus funds for one year or until the university or technical college "administrator is permanently removed from his or her administrative role." 

The legislation would also allow state or federal courts, the Higher Educational Aids Board or state lawmakers to weigh evidence and decide if a university or technical college violated free speech rights.

In addition to losing state scholarship funds, a campus found to be in violation of the law would be forced to include a disclaimer on admissions documents going to potential applicants. The disclaimer would read:

"NOTICE: We are required by the State of Wisconsin to inform you that within the last 10 years … [insert name of UW institution or technical college] has violated the free speech or academic freedom provisions in the Wisconsin statutes."

Lastly, the bill would allow the state attorney general, district attorneys or individuals whose "expressive rights were violated" to sue the UW Board of Regents or a technical college district board. If a court finds a violation occurred, the presiding judge would be required to award plaintiffs a minimum of $500 for the violation and $50 for each day after the complaint is served if the violation continues. The maximum award for plaintiffs would be $100,000 plus legal fees. The legislation mandates that such awards would come from a campus' administration budget.

Policymakers respond to bill, criticize student aid component 

The legislation, authored by state Rep. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, received a public hearing Wednesday with the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities.

Cabral-Guevara taught at UW-Oshkosh and she said the proposal stems from conversations she had with former students who said they wished everyone could feel comfortable speaking up for what they believe in. Students told her they wished she spoke up more on campus and that they were afraid of voicing certain beliefs out of fear they wouldn't be allowed to graduate, Cabral-Guevara said.

"If I wasn't strong enough, how can I ask my students to be strong also?" Cabral-Guevara asked. "And so overall, when we look at this bill here, what we're doing is trying to protect, and we're trying to promote an environment where students can be free with their thoughts and their ideas."

State Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, who is the committee chair, also testified in favor of the bill. He said empowering legislative committees, like his own, to take disciplinary actions against colleges violating the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions was appropriate because "government is supposed to protect our free speech rights." 

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, took issue with that assertion and noted that Republicans were granting themselves powers to act like a court, weighing evidence and assigning penalties.  

"You talked about the constitution at length in your testimony," said Shankland. "How does the ability to bring a cause of action to a legislative committee comport with our constitution?"

Murphy referred the question to a Wisconsin Legislative Council attorney at the hearing, who said that part of the bill "very well could be subject to separation of powers issues" and that "it's kind of questionable" whether a legislative committee could restrict financial aid to colleges.

State Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine, said he supported protecting free speech at state colleges but was a "little wary" about using state grant funding meant for student scholarships to punish universities. 

"I would also prefer to hold those that guide these institutions accountable rather than limiting financial aid, because I'm concerned that there would be too many unintended consequences for students that aren't wrapped up in this," Wittke said.

After hearing concerns about the grant fund punishment, Murphy stated he was open to amending the bill at a later date. 

Jeff Buhrandt, UW System vice president for the Office of University Relations, pointed out to the committee that state universities have always strived to promote free speech and diversity of thought on campus.

"Our current policy recognizes that each institution has a solemn responsibility not only to promote lively and fearless exploration, deliberation and debate of ideas, but also to protect those freedoms when others attempt to restrict them," said Buhrandt. 

Joe Cohn is the legislative and policy director for national the campus free speech organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He told the committee there are things he likes in the latest iteration of the Republican campus free speech bill and some things he doesn't like.

Cohn said he's glad lawmakers are working to codify campus free speech protections in statute, but he's unhappy with the provision that would restrict state grants to colleges until a campus administrator associated with a policy violating the law is fired. Cohn, who is usually a critic of college administrators, said he was glad to hear lawmakers were open to amending the bill and said if the grant restriction provision was still included during a final hearing on the legislation, he would recommend a "no" vote.