Voters don’t agree with the GOP. Republicans don’t want to hear it.

November 10, 2023 5:05 am
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Wisconsin Republicans passed a pair of  campus “free speech” bills through the Assembly this week, one of which gives students unfettered editorial control of campus newspapers, and another that sets new free speech standards and heaps fines and punishments on campuses if they violate them.

As Baylor Spears reports, floor debate on both measures revolved around a controversial survey that found conservative students are hesitant to express their opinions on campus. The survey showed that “conservative thought was actively being stifled,” Rep. Tom Michalski (R-Elm Grove) declared. Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) cited testimony by Tripp Grebe, who told legislators that the editors of the Badger Herald at the UW-Madison had fired him and refused to publish a column he wrote criticizing calls to “defund the police.” 

“This is the kind of thing that can go on on campuses,” Murphy said, “and we’re trying to protect students with diverse opinions.” But the bill Murphy and Michalski wrote, which passed unanimously, wouldn’t have made a bit of difference in Grebe’s case, since it merely gives student editors, not university officials, editorial control over campus newspapers. 

“Grebe’s situation would not have changed had this bill been in place because it was the student-run newspaper that decided not to post and publish the article,” Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) gently pointed out.

The problem for Republicans is not that university administration or Big Government are stifling conservative views. The problem is that those views are generally not popular with the public — especially with young people. No amount of legislating against “wokeness” is going to fix that. 

Tuesday’s election results across the country underscored the degree to which the GOP is out of step with the general public. Voters in Ohio overcame aggressive Republican efforts to undermine the ballot initiative process and the use of misleading language to approve an amendment that enshrines abortion rights in the state constitution. Democrats won across the country on Tuesday in key races, defeating election deniers and overcoming voter suppression efforts and reaffirming the majority view that Americans don’t approve of attacks on democracy or rolling back women’s reproductive rights. 

In the latest Marquette poll, released Wednesday, 57% of Wisconsin voters who were polled said they opposed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and 80% said abortion is either somewhat important or one of the most important issues to them. In a head-to-head rematch, Wisconsinites also said they prefer President Joe Biden to Donald Trump.

Instead of listening to the majority, Republicans are putting their hands over their ears, talking loudly, and, at the state level, passing bills designed to muffle their opponents and make it harder to vote. It doesn’t take a futurist to see the limitations of this approach.

Wisconsin Republicans are not wrong that we badly need more civil debate. But their so-called free speech bills totally miss the mark. 

AB 553 would require institutions to pay up to $100,000 in damages to anyone who sues the UW System’s Board of Regents or a technical college district board for a free speech violation. Institutions found to have violated any of the provisions in the bill would be required to pay damages, court costs and attorneys’ fees. They could also be penalized with a two-year tuition freeze if there is more than one violation in a five-year period. 

This punitive approach is hardly designed to nurture the free exchange of ideas. 

Coincidentally, on the same day the free speech bills passed the Wisconsin Assembly, UW-Madison hosted David McRaney, author of “How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion”

In an on-stage interview with UW Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, McRaney, whose book was chosen as the community-wide Go Big Read book this year, answered questions about how to bridge political division and improve dialogue. Mnookin asked him specifically what to do about the increasingly siloed campus environment, where debate can seem treacherous as students’ identity and sense of belonging is bound up in adhering to certain social-media-enforced norms.

The most important thing an institution of learning can do, McRaney said, is to foster an atmosphere of “intellectual humility,” where it’s OK to admit you might be wrong. 

“One of the safest safe spaces we can create, especially on the campus,” McRaney said, “is letting people be wrong.”

That’s a long way from the proposed lawsuits, fines and punishments Wiconsin Republicans want to mete out in the name of free speech. Not to mention book bans, rules against teaching so-called critical race theory and withholding pay raises from UW employees until the entire university system eliminates diversity programs.

If we want to nurture civic dialogue and the free exchange of ideas, we need to let people we don’t agree with talk. We have to face uncomfortable facts and allow for the possibility that someone we don’t agree with might have a point. 


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.