Campus speech & protest penalties pass Assembly

    Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in fall
    Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in Madison, WI (CC by 2.0 generic)

    The Assembly has dedicated a good bit of energy over the past few years on the topic of free speech on campus, with discussions focused on protecting speech of conservatives and limiting protests or disruptions from other students. 

    The issue has been championed by Republicans ever since right-wing provocateur Ben Shapiro spoke on the UW-Madison campus in late 2016 and had his speech interrupted briefly by protesters who shouted him down before filing out of the room. Shapiro engaged them by writing the word “morons” on a chalkboard and giving them the finger as they filed out. He then went on with his speech. 

    During Tuesday’s Assembly session free speech concerns brought up by Republicans who favored the bill included Rep. Scott Allen’s  (R-Waukesha) worries about “intolerant” liberals “who resort to name calling” and “turn conversations into shouting matches,” as well as anecdotes about a professor’s office decorations and someone forbidden from giving valentines. 

    Bill AB 444, authored by Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) and Rep. Cody Horlacher (R-Mukwonago), was brought forward this session after a similar bill requiring punishments for disruptions passed the Assembly in 2017, but died because it was never taken up in the Senate.

    This bill makes punishments — suspension from the university after a second violation and expulsion after a third — mandatory.

    Tuesday, Assembly Republicans applauded the UW Regents for having passed similar language in 2017, while deriding them for not implementing it more quickly.  Rules for implementation are still being worked out, with a public hearing scheduled in March.

    “This policy is so radical that the UW Regents agree with it,” said Horlacher. 

    But Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee) said the Legislature must act because the Regents are dragging their feet. “Guess what,” said Brandtjen, “The Board [of Regents] has not done its job.” She added that she regularly hears from students who are afraid to voice their opinions. 

    In addition to mandatory punishments, the bill permits people who feel their speech rights have been violated to sue for attorney fees and damages.

    The bill — despite a focus on free speech — spells out what topics “must be addressed” in the Board of Regents policy. One required element is stating that “the primary function of an institution is the discovery, improvement, transmission, and dissemination of knowledge. Another requirement is that institutions must remain neutral on “public policy controversies.” Another one of seven mandatory topics is “that it is not the proper role of an institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” The other elements are in the text of AB 444.

    “This is dubbed a free speech bill and it is anything but a free speech bill,” said Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie). “It’s already in the chancellor’s purview to institute a policy like this.” He added that if the bill gets passed, “it will get vetoed.”

    Horlacher stipulated during debate that this isn’t a huge problem. “True, it’s not like our state is on fire with massive amounts of protests being shouted down.” 

    Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) suggested that students be allowed to figure this out for themselves. “I think some of my colleagues really underestimate our students,” said Taylor. “Let’s learn from our students who have been able to work out situations without our involvement.” 

    The bill passed on a 62 – 37 vote along party lines, with the exception of Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) who voted with the Democrats. 

    Melanie Conklin
    Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.