Wisconsin Assembly passes campus speech bill

By: Yvonne Kim, The Cap Times 

Rep. Diane Hesselbein, D-Middleton, on Tuesday called Assembly Bill 444 bill an unnecessary repetition of the U.S. Constitution. Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, called it a draconian state statute. Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, called it a partisan waste of time.

After Democratic lawmakers made their final objections to a measure better known as the campus free speech bill on Tuesday, the Wisconsin Assembly voted in favor of mandatory disciplinary sanctions against students who violate free speech guidelines. The legislation requires colleges and universities to enforce suspension for two incidents and expulsion for three incidents of “violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the free speech of others.”

Gov. Tony Evers is likely to veto the bill.

The bill passed, 62-37, with Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Two Rivers, casting the sole vote outside party lines. Though he fully supported its authors and intentions, Sortwell told the Cap Times he wished there was more time to “fine tune” the language into a more concrete policy.

“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.”

He cited earlier feedback from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which ranks free speech policies across the country and gave no positive ratings to any Wisconsin institution. At a December public hearing, a FIRE representative called the legislation a “mixed bag” and called on legislators to continue revising it.

Though FIRE objects to being labeled conservative, it receives funding from the conservative Bradley Foundation and Charles G. Koch Foundation.

The bill would expand a nearly identical UW Board of Regents policy, which was passed in October, beyond the UW System to include the state’s public colleges. Author Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, said it “sets the framework” for Constitutional free speech protections.

“The UW regents agree 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,” Horlacher said.

But, recalling conservative speaker Ben Shapiro’s visit to UW-Madison in 2016, Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said lawmakers have much to learn. Shapiro’s speech was interrupted by student protesters, who left the event after about ten minutes and Shapiro finished his talk. Students already know how to demonstrate peaceful protest and handle political disagreements without legislative interference, she said.

“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 — you will be listened to, you will be heard, you will have the opportunity to engage in a discussion.”

Republican lawmakers introduced a nearly identical bill in 2017, which died in the Senate.

Although bill opponents like Taylor said the job of regulating speech is best left to individual campuses and chancellors, Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, characterized universities as too dominated by singular ideologies.

“We as a Legislature are responsible for policy and the direction of the university that bears our name,” Allen said. “If the Board of Regents and university administration are unwilling to act in an appropriate manner, then we as a legislative body need to define what that appropriate manner is.”

Beyond FIRE, other groups including PROFS, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the State Bar of Wisconsin have opposed the bill.

Shankland said she at least hoped to see the legislation improved before coming before the Assembly to reflect criticism from constituents and civil liberties organizations.

“If we’re going to take up the UW bill, why don’t we fund the tuition freeze? Why don’t we invest in the UW System and technical college system?“ Shankland said. “(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.”