Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) questions why Republicans are bringing bills to ban critical race theory and defend speech on campus at the same time. (Screenshot | WisEye)
A bill to prevent university administrators from stifling conservative speech, a bill to count classes on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights as credit toward diversity and ethnic studies course requirements and a bill banning critical race theory from college campuses all received a public hearing on Thursday.
In the hearing of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, several conservative college students gave testimony saying they felt like they were unable to speak up about their views in a variety of classes while university professors said the bill banning critical race theory would have a chilling effect on campus speech and academic freedom.
Republicans in Wisconsin and across the country have spent the past year and a half working to ban critical race theory — a graduate school-level framework that states American institutions are shaped by racism — from universities, K-12 schools and trainings for government employees. The movement has resulted in school districts across the country banning books from libraries and school curricula.
In the hearing, the committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 792, which was authored by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington). The bill states that if a university has a general education requirement that students take a course in diversity or ethnic studies, then a class on the Constitution and Bill of Rights should satisfy that requirement.
“America’s founding documents show the great aspiration for equality and opportunity for all, alongside where America did fall short of its aspirations,” Stroebel said.
Democrats on the committee questioned Stroebel, asking if he wants these classes to only teach the text of the documents or put them into context and discuss how they allowed for slavery and the disenfranchisement of most Americans. John Zumbrunnen, vice provost for teaching and learning and a political science professor at UW-Madison, said any good college course would go in depth on the ideas that guided America’s founding and how the documents were used then and how they’re used today — rather than a “straight up” teaching of what the documents say.
“I don’t think that would be an interesting or engaging college level course,” Zumbrunnen said.
The committee also heard testimony on another Republican authored bill that would allow students to sue university administrators if they feel like their right to free speech is being stifled. A line of conservative students spoke, talking about how they felt uncomfortable sharing their political views in class or in an assignment for fear of retribution or bad grades.
Senate Bill 837 specifically eliminates university administrators’ immunity from lawsuits as public employees. The doctrine known as qualified immunity protects government employees from being held individually responsible for actions taken in the course of their job and frequently prevents police officers from being held responsible for shooting and killing people — a protection Republicans in Wisconsin have not been willing to eliminate.
“Colleges and universities were founded to be a place to share ideas, thoughts and beliefs for the betterment and progress of our society,” Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonie), one of the bill’s co-authors, said. “It is all too common on college campuses for students’ ideas to be silenced if they’re not the same as a professor class or student organization. Senate Bill 837 will ensure that university administrators who violate free speech of students are held responsible for these violations.”
After a large amount of testimony in favor of this bill, the committee later took up the bill on critical race theory.
The bill’s original language completely bans “instruction to students that promotes race or sex stereotyping in any course or as part of any curriculum and shall not require an employee to attend a training that teaches, advocates, acts upon, or promotes race or sex stereotyping.” The bill requires course syllabi to be posted online and comes with 10% reduction in state funding if it is violated.
In the Assembly version of the bill, an amendment has been passed that largely changes its function. The amended version doesn’t prevent the teaching of any material in classes, but prohibits students from being required to take training that discusses the harms of racism. The amended bill also includes a provision that protects the academic freedom of faculty members.
The amendment passed unanimously in the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities but has not yet received a vote in the Senate committee.
Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech organization, said that while he was completely opposed to the bill as originally written, he is in support of the bill’s defense of academic freedom.
“The original version dealt with all these divisive concepts and said you can’t teach these things,” Cohn said. “One thing that I actually like, which is the only reason why I’m entertaining instead of going from oppose to neutral to oppose to support, is because of the provision on academic freedom. Which is the strongest one that I’ve seen anywhere in the country.”
While Cohn said he can support the bill because of its defense of academic freedom, Zumbrunnen said UW-Madison was against even the amended version of the bill because it could chill free speech.
“We aim to graduate alumni who are well rounded critical thinkers, we try to teach them not what to think but how to think,” he said. “Our ability to do that, and to attract and retain world class faculty and staff depend on a thriving, sometimes contentious marketplace of ideas, shaped by our commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech.”
“We likewise deeply value the freedom of speech, everyone on campus’ freedom to express their points of views, including their opinions about our curriculum, about what and how we teach,” he continued. “UW-Madison believes that the proposed legislation, even with pending passage of Senate amendment one, would have a chilling effect on that environment of academic freedom and freedom of speech on our campus.”
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) questioned how Republicans could, in the same hearing, bring a bill aimed at protecting speech on campus and a bill preventing certain topics from being discussed on campuses.
“If I believe the intent of the overall legislation was trying to be able to say that students should be exposed to a diversity of opinions, how uncomfortable they may be, this seems like this is like a safe space bill right?” Larson said. “If you feel funny or feel like you are targeted or you feel bad — or a person is indirectly feeling bad because history is taught to them. How is that not eliminating the idea that our university system is supposed to expose our students to uncomfortable truths, uncomfortable history, and frankly, be able to make sure that they understand the history of the world?”
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