By: Michael Parsky, The Daily Cardinal
To the dismay of many Democrats, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill Tuesday that would impose disciplinary measures against students who violate free speech guidelines on college campuses.
Under the new Campus Free Speech Bill, Wisconsin colleges and universities would be required to suspend students after two instances of “violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts [the] free speech of others.” Students will be expelled after a third incident that infringes on or disobeys free speech policy.
The new legislation passed 62-37, following a failed attempt by Republican lawmakers in 2017. Only Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Two Rivers, voted outside of party lines.
Sortwell told the Cap Times he supported the purpose of the bill, but wanted the Legislature to spend more time deliberating to make the legislation more explicit in its actual implementation.
“I still think there were things that needed to be worked out to make sure this wasn’t abused by colleges and universities to squelch free speech,” Sortwell said. “Otherwise it’s kind of left up to the discretion of a university official, incident by incident.”
The bill expands on a similar policy adopted by the UW System Board of Regents in October 2019 intended to reinforce the same constitutional protections afforded by the first amendment.
“The UW regents agree[d] with this reasoning and thinking that these are the types of policies we need to have on our college campuses to have the civil debate and dialogue and exchange of ideas,” said Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago.
On the other side of the aisle, however, a chorus of Democrats expressed discontent with the bill.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, called the legislation a “draconian state statute,” and Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, described the bill as “a partisan waste of time,” according to the Cap Times.
Shankland agreed with Sortwell that she wished the bill came to the Assembly under more concrete conditions. She also said the Legislature should focus its attention on other priorities related to colleges and universities.
If the legislation passes the state Senate, Gov. Tony Evers will most likely veto the bill.
“[This bill] is designed to inflame partisan tensions at a time when we should be focusing on investing in higher education, making it more affordable and giving students every opportunity and chance to succeed,” Shankland said.
A prior assessment by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — which disputed criticism the group supports conservative values — gave no positive ratings to Wisconsin institutions, the Cap Times reported.
Some contention toward free speech on college campuses draws from a 2016 speech by conservative political speaker Ben Shapiro disrupted by student protesters, who left after 10 minutes and Shapiro continued on with his talk.
While Republicans say instances like the Shapiro speech necessitate more stringent policies to protect free speech, other lawmakers, such as Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, believe college students already possess restraint and can carry out peaceful demonstrations on their own accord.
“Our students actually have, it seems to me, a better depth of understanding of the First Amendment than some in this body,” Taylor said. “If you’re curious to see what’s happening on campus, go to campus. I guarantee you will be listened to, you will be heard, you will have the opportunity to engage in a discussion.”