By Pat Schneider, The Capitol Times
In debate on the Assembly floor Thursday, Democratic opponents of a Wisconsin campus speech bill accused Republicans of hypocrisy in presenting themselves as champions of free speech while they routinely squelch protest in the Capitol and try to silence speech at the University of Wisconsin that they don’t like.
The Republican majority has cut hundreds of millions in funding to the UW System in the past two bienniums and prevents protesters from holding signs in the chamber's gallery, noted Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee.
“Those who run the show have shown hostility to free speech and hostility to the university,” he said.
That hostility extends to the habitual “mansplaining” to female legislators and efforts to close down classes that address touchy topics like race or gender in a way Republicans find offensive, Democrats argued in a lengthy debate.
Generated by the perception of Republican leaders that conservative voices are silenced on UW campuses, the Campus Free Speech Act protects unpopular speech, its authors say. Opponents argue it will chill opposing speech by exposing students who engage in it to penalties including expulsion from the university.
The bill passed the Assembly by a 61-36 vote and moves to the Senate, where a similar bill already has been introduced.
Author Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, called it a proactive piece of legislation developed at the request of UW System regents, students and constituents to ensure the university “remains a free marketplace of ideas.”
The bill mandates expulsion of UW students who “materially and substantially disrupt the free expression of others” three times, and requires the UW to remain neutral on public policy controversies.
Republican legislators complain about a lack of conservative discourse on UW campuses, yet most refuse to visit campus to debate current issues, said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.
She noted Speaker Robin Vos’ effort to document the political leanings of guest speakers invited to campus.
“It’s a little creepy,” she said. ”What’s next? Cataloging political affiliations of professors and staff? Do you think this will influence how they teach? How they teach science and math?”
Taylor also criticized Republicans who are frequent critics of the content of classes taught at UW. Some have urged that legislators restrict funding because of a class on race or gender that they find offensive.
Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, for example, last year urged colleagues to use the power of the purse strings to convince UW-Madison to scratch a class called “The Problem of Whiteness.” Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, joined Nass in condemning a UW-Madison program on masculinity they said “declares war on men.”
Taylor argued that Republican lawmakers have been restricting opposing speech in the Capitol since they assumed control, curtailing the ability of protesters to gather in the building's rotunda, “a public forum where people are entitled to the most heightened protection on speech.”
Taylor said she has been admonished to ask fewer questions in committee sessions and was prevented from using funds to attend a conference on reproductive rights.
“That’s a violation of the First Amendment. You can’t restrict state resources based on the content of speech,” she said.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said the bill is so broad in its potential prohibitions on speech that it could be applied to some legislators’ interruptions of their female colleagues.
“We are constantly interrupted,” Shankland said. “You call us names and make fun of us and sometimes you laugh.”
Interfering with the expressive rights of others is not adequately defined in the bill, and could be construed as interrupting or “mansplaining on campus” she said.
“Could it be construed as interrupting another teacher, or another student in small group?” Shankland asked. “You guys need to think about what this legislation does and doesn’t do.”
The bill requires a mandatory investigation if two people accuse student, staff or faculty of disrupting free expression.
“Under this bill, if two people get really tired of this person in political science speaking up every day, and asking good questions, could they decide to report them?” Shankland asked. “If you ‘man-terrupt’ me in feminism class, I can sue you?”
Not only is the free expression of visitors to the chamber curtailed, it seems backers of the bill did not want to hear from students, said Rep. Jill Billings, D-LaCrosse, who argued that the UW System has done a good job of protecting speech.
“I don’t think it was an accident that this bill came out for public hearing during finals week,” she said, when students from around the state were unable to travel to Madison to attend.
“If people in the gallery can’t sit quietly in protest with a piece of tape on their mouth, I don’t think we are the experts and role model on free speech,” she said.