Cardinal View: Proposed 'Free Speech' Act would stifle campus discourse

Image By: Amileah Sutliff

While most of you were away enjoying the freedoms of summer, our state legislature was hard at work trying to restrict your freedoms here in Madison.

On June 21, the Wisconsin state Assembly voted 61-36 to approve the “Campus Free Speech Act,” a bill which purportedly promotes expression and speech on UW System campuses. The measure would bar students from disrupting campus speakers, and violators would be subjected to disciplinary measures, including suspension or even expulsion. Other provisions would require first-year students to receive First Amendment training upon arrival on campus, and the university would be required to “remain neutral on public policy controversies.”

The bill’s author, state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, said in a floor speech that the bill ensures “that simply because you are a young adult on a college campus, your constitutional rights do not go away.”

Yet whose constitutional rights are being protected, and whose rights are not? Considering the fact that students can be punished for exercising their First Amendment rights to organize and protest, the line is blurry.

Donald Moynihan, the director of UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and an expert on how free speech is negotiated in universities, raised several concerns about the effect this bill will have on the day-to-day lives of students.

He pointed out how limited universities would be when considering a potential violation. Under the current form of the bill, Moynihan said, schools would not be able to consider the context in which a violation occurred, giving administrators little leeway.

The bill also allows students to report other students for violations. Allowing students to monitor their peers’ speech may sound well-intentioned, but, in reality, it limits the free exchange of ideas on campus.

“Rather than celebrating free speech, people are literally going to police one another's speech,” Moynihan said. “You can imagine students taking out cell phones, recording the actions of other students in an attempt to catch them engaging in some sort of violation of the statute.”

Wisconsin is not alone in considering such a measure. Other states, ranging from Arizona to North Carolina, have pursued a bill along the same lines as Kremer’s.

But not all of these measures are as punitive. Tennessee’s bill, for instance, is intended more as a framework for free speech at the state’s public universities. It bars so-called “free speech zones,” but otherwise does not mandate punishments for students.

While amendments have been made to Wisconsin’s bill to give more freedom to the UW System, the irony is that the Board of Regents have passed multiple resolutions in recent years intended to underline their commitment to free speech. The most recent measure, approved in July, said that they were committed to ensuring an “environment where civil discussions can occur as students learn, study and prepare for their futures.”

The question, however, is whether this bill achieves that ideal. Our response is an unequivocal: no.

The Campus Free Speech Act is not about free speech, despite what legislators may say. We know this because state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, last year called on the state Legislature to slash funding over a class he disagreed with. State Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, similarly slammed a UW-Madison masculinity program as a “war on men.”

Both Nass and Murphy support a bill ostensibly promoting free speech, yet see no problem denigrating the speech of students and faculty they disagree with. This leads us to reach the only conclusion possible: this bill is not truly designed to enhance the discourse on campus, but rather to promote a certain kind of speech and extend the reach of the state legislature into the dealings of the UW.

“At a philosophical level, the problem with defending free speech is that you end up having to defend speech that you don't particularly like, if you're going to be consistent,” Moynihan said. “And on that test, obviously some legislators have failed. In that [lawmakers have] said, ‘we want to protect free speech,’ but at the same time, they want to use their platform as legislators to encourage the stifling of speech on campus.”

We are not opposed to the notion of promoting free speech on campus. Indeed, UW-Madison is not always perfect in ensuring that open debate reigns supreme. The Ben Shapiro event on campus last year was not a shining display of civilized exchange.

But it was a good example of how universities can honor the free speech rights of all. Protesters were given a chance to demonstrate before being escorted out, allowing the speech to continue. To say that all voices were not heard on the matter would be inaccurate.

Wisconsin excels when its foremost institutions flourish, and the UW System is a key pillar of the state community. This bill is not in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, and does not honor a university system which has historically been a leader in free and open discourse.

Unfortunately, some state lawmakers seem to have a different agenda in mind. Perhaps they should consider participating in the First Amendment training that they are so quick to prescribe for members of the UW System community.

Cardinal View editorials represent The Daily Cardinal's organizational opinion. Each editorial is crafted independent of news coverage. Please send all comments, questions and concerns to editorialboard@dailycardinal.com.

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