Bill would require UW schools to protect offensive speech
Gov. Walker is recommending the passage of a bill that seeks to protect freedom of speech on UW campuses, even speech that may be deemed “deeply offensive.”Image By: Katie Scheidt
Alongside his budget proposal, Gov. Scott Walker is recommending the passage of a companion bill that would legally require university officials to act in defense of offensive speech.
The supplementary piece of legislation expands on a vague provision in Walker’s 2017-’19 biennial budget that calls for providing $10,000 to the UW System to revise its “policies related to academic freedom.”
The bill specifies the purpose of the additional funding, stating that “the board and each institution and college campus has a responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
“It is not the proper role of the board or any institution or college campus to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” the bill reads.
The additional funds allotted in the budget would cover the costs of any administrative changes in updating the universities’ relevant policies.
Despite its intended purpose, some on campus believe that the bill’s vague language could hinder free assembly and protest in response to offensive speech.
“Just as speakers should have the right to comment on issues they want to, students should have the right to protest what speakers are saying. If the university is being told to censor students, that is troubling,” Jason Klein, spokesperson for Associated Students of Madison, told The Capital Times.
Similar legislation has appeared in legislatures around the country, following student backlash to the controversial appearances of far-right speakers and organizations on college campuses.
Last November, the UW-Madison chapter of Young Americans for Freedom hosted conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, which led to large student protests. Additionally, a planned event earlier this month for ‘alt-right’ speaker and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos at UC-Berkeley was cancelled after eruptions of violence.
Yiannopoulos, who regularly speaks at college campuses, is often greeted by protestors due to his controversial speech, which many consider offensive.
At UW-Milwaukee, Yiannopoulos directly targeted a transgender student in the audience, and, while speaking at the University of New Mexico, encouraged students to “purge [their] local illegals.”
“Milo has been guilty of all sorts of misbehaviors that go well beyond freedom of expression,” Howard Schweber, a UW-Madison professor of political science and law, said. “His own message is profoundly anti-free speech, but that message is just as protected as any other.”
On UW-Madison’s campus, criticism of the administration’s tolerance of offensive speech surfaced after both the Camp Randall noose incident and the establishment of a local chapter of a white nationalist group.
But according to Schweber, public universities cannot pick and choose what ideas to allow on campus, even if some may offend students.
“Universities should not try to limit the range of opinions that are expressed, including opinions critical of other opinions,” Schweber said. “If the university allows groups on campus to invite speakers, it cannot discriminate among those groups or speakers on the basis of an unpopular or offensive message.”
University officials have repeatedly supported this idea. In 2015, after Black Lives Matter protests swept campuses around the country in response to hate speech at the University of Missouri, the UW Board of Regents unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas.
“Freedom of expression includes the right to discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions on all matters both in and outside the classroom,” the resolution states. “The UW System is committed to these principles and provides all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to explore ideas and to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter