Senate bills seek to push conservative agenda in higher education under ‘free speech’ guise

By Fiona Hatch

In early January, Republicans proposed Senate Bill 837, which aims to eliminate university administrators’ qualified immunity from lawsuits regarding alleged violations of students’ free speech. 

A hearing held by the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges on Feb. 10 heard testimony advocating for the bill’s implementation into the University of Wisconsin System.

This was not the only bill heard by the committee. Also on the agenda were two other proposals, one of which aims to make classes on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights applicable to fill the ethnic studies requirement in Wisconsin universities. The other would ban teaching on topics that promote “race or sex stereotyping,” which Republicans claim constitutes “critical race theory,” in college classrooms.

The groups intended to benefit from these proposals are those who hold traditionally conservative opinions, which has been a consistent trend in the Republican legislature’s agenda. In 2017, a failed bill proposed by Republicans advocating for the expulsion of students who disrupted public speakers three or more times resulted in real action from the UW Board of Regents, who ended up creating a resolution that mirrored the bill.

During the Senate Committee hearing, Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, emphasized the fact that there are already First Amendment protections at the state and federal level, according to WPR.

“At least some of the bill authors were more interested in putting forward a bill that was designed to be political and furnish political talking points during the year 2022,” Shankland said.

Rep. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, pushed back on this criticism by highlighting the complaints of conservative students who have expressed that their opinions are stifled in the current academic climate.

“How many times have you felt targeted, penalized, or isolated based on your viewpoints at UW-Madison? We have all had an experience where a professor, TA, or campus administrator has treated us differently based on our conservative values,” UW’s GOP Badgers said in an email to its members, urging them to support the bill.

It is vital, however, to look at how much of the content of these complaints is about freedom of speech restrictions, and how much is related to discontent over the subjects being taught. There is a difference between being unable to voice an opinion and being unwilling to recognize a topic at all.

The goal for Republicans is clear — free speech must be maintained over supposed political correctness. But the reach to which speech should be protected is more selective than conservatives supporting these pieces of legislation want it to appear.

It is becoming increasing clear that the boundaries of free speech are not universal between political groups. According to a study conducted by the Knight Foundation, different political parties hold opposing opinions over whether or not free speech is guaranteed on subjects that are notoriously partisan.

For example, 44% of Republicans believe that spreading COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is a legitimate expression of the First Amendment, while this percentage is significantly smaller in Democrats, with just over 20% in agreement. On the other side, only 56% of Republicans believe that the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in the summer of 2020 fit within the bounds of free speech, compared to 85% of Democrats.

Critical race theory has been an increasingly controversial educational topic in recent years. The basic assertion made by CRT scholars is that racism is not the product of individual bias, but rather something that is inherently embedded in U.S. legal systems and policies, which must be reevaluated if racism is to ever be completely eliminated. This claim sparked sparked outrage among conservatives, with the most common attack being mounted from white individuals who do not want to be labeled as inherently racist.

The irony of this argument — which does not accurately interpret critical race theory in the first place — is how it demonstrates the need for open conversations and teachings about topics surrounding racism and discrimination. Recognizing this, any bill requiring a ban on the teaching of critical race theory actually undermines the notion of free speech. It is especially interesting to note that two bills with extremely contrasting views on freedom of speech are being pushed not only at the same time, but by the same party.

This brings us to the point where one must ask a few basic questions — how far can free speech be pushed, and at what point is the argument no longer about free speech at all?

Debate among scholars is of course an important part of higher education and academia. But the issue with proposals such as these is the disparity it creates regarding who is allowed to express their opinion.

It is also important to recognize that by removing qualified immunity, the academic culture on campus could change considerably. Specifically, relations between professors and students could look completely different.

“It is all too common on college campuses for students’ ideas to be silenced if they’re not the same as a professor, class or student organization,” co-author of Senate Bill 837 Clint Moses said.

Under the proposed legislation, students would be able to sue the UW Board of Regents, which could make instructors hesitant to cover topics that are politically controversial by nature of the subject matter. There must be a space available for students to question and debate these ideas, but not at the expense of learning the facts of uncomfortable or difficult subjects.

Additionally, by introducing another bill at the same time which would ban the critical race theory from being taught in classrooms, there is a clear answer as to which courses and professors would be the most at risk of being punished under the legislation.

This debate is no longer about free speech. Senate Bill 837 may in itself promote an important protection for the First Amendment in the UW System, but the political climate under which it is being pushed, the Senators backing it and the accompanying bills all give the context necessary to realize that the end goal is not to give everyone a voice, but to change whose voices are allowed to be heard.

Freedom of speech is a necessary right to our democracy. But it is counter-intuitive to curtail the educational decisions of a university professor, especially when the most targeted subjects would be difficult, partisan as well as critical in content matter like systemic racism.

Students should be allowed to debate — but professors must be allowed to teach.