State News

Amid controversy over “free speech” bill, UW-Madison event highlights contemporary challenges

Professor Howard Schweber led a discussion on free speech issues Monday.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

The Wisconsin State Assembly recently passed a bill to protect free speech on campus, but according to one UW-Madison professor, the real threats to free speech are the writers of the legislation.

Following controversy over the state Assembly’s recent passage of the “Campus Free Speech Act,” professor Howard Schweber, a First Amendment expert, led a discussion on the future of free speech on college campuses put on by the Political Science Department.

“In the context of a college campus, [free speech and academic freedom] are almost opposites,” Schweber said. “Academic freedom is the freedom of the university to define its course. Not the freedom of the students, not the freedom of the faculty.”

The ability to narrow the bounds of legitimate discourse, Schweber argued, is implicit in the authority to write a curriculum and to further an educational mission.

“It’s perfectly permissible for the Biology Department to refuse to hire someone who does not believe in cells. It’s a basic professional qualification,” Schweber said. Free speech functions differently on a campus, he argued, due to the unique nature of its purpose.

In light of recent campus speech controversies, Schweber regaled the audience with a description of the legal bounds of protest: “Protesters are exercising their free speech rights just like the speaker. Free speech is for everybody.”

Protest, however, becomes unprotected when it actively prevents a speaker from being heard, Schweber said.

“If you’re expressing yourself, you’re probably protected. If you’re preventing others from expressing themselves, you’re not,” he said.

Amid debate over the bill recently passed by the state Assembly, Schweber criticized the state Legislature, saying lawmakers overstepped their bounds.

“The government should not make you afraid of exercising your rights,” Schweber said. “The Wisconsin Legislature gives us a good example [of a real threat to free speech].”

The bill would require the UW system to punish students who interfere with the speech and events of others.

Proponents argue that the bill is essential in the preservation of unpopular speech on college campuses, and is particularly salient in an age of unusually heated and divisive protest. However, Schweber fears it crosses a line.

“If we have a rule that is vague enough, slippery enough, mandatory enough … you are likely to air on the side of caution,” said Schweber. He said that speech is not a setting in which the state should remain unclear in its policy of allowance.

Schweber noted that the university’s autonomy from state control is essential in its ability to successfully educate, and that this bill is a rescindment of that principle.

“The whole idea of academic freedom is about preserving the university as an institution.”

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