Wisconsin Assembly Passes Bill That Would Punish Protesters Who Disrupt Campus Speeches

By: Marti Mikkelson, WUWM 

Students who disrupt campus speeches and presentations would be punished under a bill the Wisconsin Assembly passed on Tuesday. It now goes to the state Senate. Under the measure, students who disrupt speeches on UW System and technical college campuses twice would be suspended. Third-time offenders would be expelled.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle debated the bill passionately and it passed 62-37. Republicans say it’s designed to avoid incidents that have occurred across the country, like the one at the University of California-Berkeley in 2017, following President Trump’s inauguration. A right-wing commentator was forced to cancel his appearance because of violent protests in the days leading up to his speech.

That same year, students and liberal activists at UW-Madison shouted down conservative speaker Ben Shapiro during a talk he gave on campus. Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, supported the measure.

“The issues and concerns that we’re dealing with in this bill relates to violent and disorderly behavior that disrupts basic conversation, basic dialogue and discussion. This is not a matter of disagreements,” Horlacher says.

Another person backing the bill was Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls. She says some of her interns at the Capitol are students, and they say they’re afraid of voicing conservative viewpoints on campus.

“They tell me they are fearful of their teachers, they’re fearful of their grades and more importantly, they don’t think they can speak on campus. They think they’ll be shouted down. We put all this money into these institutions and here we stand, that we’ve taught our students that they can shout each other down. How disgusting,” Brandtjen says.

But some Democrats criticized the bill, including Rep. Gary Hebl. He called it a waste of time and says Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would likely veto it. Hebl says the measure violates the free speech rights of protesters.

“This bill is laughable because it’s touted as a free speech bill, and it’s actually quite the opposite. The punitive measures included in this bill will have a chilling effect on free expression,” Hebl says.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, called the bill draconian and says the U.S. Constitution already protects free speech. She says if the Legislature really wants to help students, several bills are waiting in committee that lawmakers could bring to the floor.

“Like funding the tuition freeze, like ending the higher education grant waitlist and supporting students’ financial aid needs, like creating a blue-ribbon commission on higher education. We could be proactive today Mr. Speaker, instead of debating and potentially passing legislation that is harmful,” Shankland says.

The bill now goes to the Senate, but it’s unclear whether lawmakers in that chamber will take it up since time is winding down on the two-year session. Republican leaders hope to wrap it up by the end of next week.