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Friday, June 21, 2024

Campus Free Speech Act could be implemented in the fall semester

First-year and transfer students may receive First Amendment training during a new freshman orientation that would explain the university’s free expression policies, as part of a bill gaining traction in the state’s Legislature.

Republican lawmakers are concerned the UW System has dropped the ball on protecting free speech and free expression by allowing demonstrations against conservative speakers. Legislators introduced Assembly Bill 299 this session, saying the bill helps combat one-sided ideologies and helps protect students’ rights

Most recently, the bill passed an Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities on a party line vote of 8-6 in late May. The bill will now come up for a vote on the Assembly floor in mid-June, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

The bill, titled the Campus Free Speech Act, comes in response to a national trend of student protesters interfering with political speakers who are invited to universities and colleges—sometimes causing them to be unable to speak.

Perhaps the most controversial example of protests on liberal campuses against conservative speakers was a violent demonstration against conservative former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California-Berkeley in February.

Last fall, UW-Madison had a notable protest against another former Breitbart editor, Ben Shapiro. Part of his speech was interrupted, but he was able to finish it. State Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, cites the Shapiro incident and the majority liberal speakers paid to come to UW-Madison as examples for the bill’s necessity.

“In our own backyard, we have seen the trend of suppression of ideas as speakers have been shouted down and physically assaulted by those who do not share their beliefs,” Kremer said. “Our universities have the responsibility to encourage debate and offer up a wide range of perspectives.”

Democratic members of the Assembly, however, point to already existing free expression policies created to discipline students if demonstrations become unruly.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told The Daily Cardinal in the spring she felt the university handled the Shapiro event well. The university gave protesters five minutes to protest, according to Blank.

“I was actually quite proud of our students on both sides of that event in terms of how they handled that,” Blank said. “Mr. Shapiro got to give his full speech and at the same time it was very clear that there was controversy about this.”

Amendments were added to the bill cleared up vague language in the bill, specifically the penalties students would receive for violating another individual’s freedom of expression.

If a UW student is found to have two violations of interfering with someone’s free expression rights by preventing them from speaking, they would face a minimum one-semester suspension. Working on a three-strikes-out model, the same student would be expelled if found violating policies a third time during their college career.

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Additionally, anyone is able to report a UW student for violating the policies. Two or more reports against a student would launch a disciplinary hearing to decide penalties. 

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