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Republican ‘Free Speech Act’ would punish students who disrupt speeches, presentations

UW policies already in place to discipline student conduct violations

State Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and other Republican legislators are circulating a bill that would enforce the right to free speech in response to protests against conservative speakers on campus.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

Students who protest and disrupt speeches or presentations could be punished or even expelled under a bill introduced late Wednesday by two state Republican lawmakers.

Two UW-Madison conservative speakers received backlash in the form of student protests over the academic year. Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media, Steve Forbes, were both yelled at — and in Shapiro’s case, interrupted — by students who oppose their conservative ideology.

In an effort to ensure UW System schools facilitate free speech, state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, are circulating a bill titled the “Campus Free Speech Act.”

The conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom, which planned the Shapiro event, has come to expect protests. UW-Madison freshman and YAF Chair Abby Streu noted — like many branches of YAF at other colleges in the nation — their political ideology does not “necessarily line up with the [liberal] campus trend.”

“We don’t mind protests in the sense that everyone has the right to protest something, especially if they don’t like it. That’s their constitutional right so we respect that,” Streu said. “Such as the [protest] that happened with Steve Forbes on Bascom Hill, they had their complete right to be out there voicing their opinion. What we don’t like is when those protesters interrupt our events and block that speaker from proceeding.”

The bill also incorporates Kremer’s specific issues with the need for “Free Speech Zones” and “Bias Response Protocols,” calling them offensive to college students’ intelligence and demeaning to academic communities.

“In recent decades, attacks on free expression have become commonplace and in-vogue at institutions where ideals and truths should be challenged — the American university,” Kremer said in a statement. “Ironically, free expression that has been removed from the college public square in an attempt to shield young, apparently fragile, yet critically thinking adults as offensive, has by its very nature become offensive.”

Under the bill, the Board of Regents would have to implement a policy for the UW System and two-year colleges that establishes it is not a university or college's role to “shield students from free expression.”

Additionally, campuses must be open to any invited speaker and protests can only occur if they do not disrupt the right of audience members to engage or listen to the speaker. Anyone who does impede free expression will be punished by the university, with possible expulsion.

Students are allowed due process protections through hearings to determine their punishment, according to the bill.

The Board of Regents must also create a “Council on Free Expression” that meets with the governor annually along with the legislature, regents and the public on topics surrounding freedom of expression issues.

The UW System, however, already has similar policies that ensure institutions maintain order and discipline students who violate standards of conduct. In terms of campus speakers, protests and demonstrations, UW-Madison has a policy that protects free speech.

“We appreciate and agree with the desire of the bill’s authors to ensure that a university campus is a place where individuals have the right to freely express their views without fear of harassment or intimidation,” said university spokesperson John Lucas. “The ability to do so, and for people to engage in vigorous debate about those views, are hallmarks of higher education and should be encouraged.”

Determining how to discipline students who interfered with free expression based on specific sanctions will limit the authority of the university's disciplinary committee by restriction its ability to weigh all factors in the situation, according to Lucas. 

“We urge the Legislature to work with the Board of Regents to identify policies that will address the free exchange of ideas and need for order, while respecting the existing student conduct process that has served institutions well for many years,” Lucas said.

The need for this new legislation when policies already exist has also been questioned by student activisits. 

“I think if the university already has a code of conduct and [I haven’t] been in trouble for it, I think that kind of says a lot on its own,” UW-Madison junior and activist Ricardo Cortez de la Cruz II, who helped organize the Shapiro and Forbes protests, said.

“What we’re doing is not as disruptive as the white right would make it to be. If it was, I’m sure a lot of us would be facing a penalty,” de la Cruz added.

There is also doubt among some students if this bill is necessary or would enact real change on campus.

“I don’t think it’s necessary because I already think the freedom of expression is already protected under the Constitution,” Streu said. “I think it’s more of a solidarity thing, saying we’re not going to let this happen. I appreciate the state Legislature doing that.”

There is also doubt the bill will cause a decline in protests on campus. 

“If protests are already out there trying to block our events I don’t think passing more legislation against it is necessarily going to prevent them from doing this,” Streu said. “It takes a lot to change somebody’s mind when they want to go out there and protest.”

For de la Cruz, the bill will not stop him from protesting, even if it passes into law and has potential to cause legal trouble.

“I think we’re all creative enough to find different ways and different means to protest,” de la Cruz said.

“Will the bill really stop anything? No. Will it slow things down? Maybe.” 

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