Under a new piece of legislation that passed through the Wisconsin State Assembly on Wednesday night, students who disrupt speeches on campus at University of Wisconsin schools could be suspended or even expelled for speaking out.
“Hateful speech is protected under the First Amendment, whether we like it or not,” Rep. Jesse Kremer, a sponsor of the bill, told CNN.
The Campus Free Speech Act passed 61-36 along party lines after a four-hour debate Wednesday night and will move to the state Senate. No Democrats voted for the bill.
When former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro visited UW-Madison last fall to give a lecture on “dismantling safe spaces,” it didn’t take long for student protesters to start chanting over him.
But, the unrest was resolved quickly and amicably, unlike other similar incidents across the country.
In February, violent protests broke out at UC Berkeley against a speech by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, injuring several people and causing $100,000 worth of damage. And, in April, punches were thrown at Auburn University before a speech from white nationalist Richard Spencer.
UW schools haven’t seen any protests that violent, but Kremer said he wants to “nip it in the bud before it gets to that point.”
“This thing is more of a proactive approach than anything,” he said.
Proactive or unnecessary
But, what Kremer considers proactive is seen as unnecessary by critics in the state assembly.
“This is the GOP Big Brother attempting to impose their will on the university system and the Board of Regents that has never had an issue enforcing this in Wisconsin,” said Minority Leader Peter Barca.
While the legislation was drafted to protect the First Amendment rights of campus speakers, Barca and other opponents of the bill are concerned about protesters’ free speech being stifled in the process. Kremer said students in disagreement can still voice their opinions – just maybe not quite so literally.
“They still have the right to speak,” Kremer said. “They can go outside the venue, have their own forums, but the individual has the right to get out what they want.”
If the bill becomes law, students would be subject to disciplinary action if they engage in “violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the free expression of others.”
Students who break the rules are subject to a “three-strikes system,” Kremer said. After two allegations, students become subject to a formal investigation and hearing. If the student is found guilty twice, they are suspended for a minimum of one semester. After three violations, the student is expelled.
“It’s a Draconian effort that will lead to a chilling effect,” Barca said.
The constitutionality of the bill
Barca said the effort behind the bill is to suppress free speech, which he said would make the legislation unconstitutional. David Vanness, an associate professor at UW-Madison, testified against the bill when it was still in committee in May, saying the interpretations of terms in the bill were too broad and “the risks to students of participation in any form of expression would be enormous.”
“Nothing in this bill is unconstitutional,” Kremer said. “There is nothing here that the Supreme Court hasn’t vetted already.”
In his testimony on the bill while it was in committee in May, UW System President Ray Cross agreed a policy was needed but voiced several concerns about the details of the legislation. Cross disputed a minimum punishment for students and said the disciplinary details seemed inflexible. He also said the bill could make Wisconsin a “target for lawsuits” from students and speakers.
Board of Regents President John Robert Behling did not mention the bill directly in his statement but said the board welcomes input from stakeholders, including the legislature.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank had no comment on the legislation.