Wisconsin lawmakers hop on campus free speech bandwagon

Two Wisconsin legislators introduced a bill that would ensure free speech on the University of Wisconsin’s college campuses. 

State Sen. Chris Kapenga (R) and Representative Cody Horlacher (R) introduced a bill that would instruct the Wisconsin Board of Regents to put in place a new policy clarifying universities should not engage in shielding students from speech protected by the First Amendment. It would further subject those who use methods of disruption to prevent others from exercising their First Amendment rights to some form of punishment. 

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According to the bill, students who are found to be “disruptive of expressive rights of others" should be suspended for one semester. Those who violate policy for the third time “must be expelled," the bill states, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

“Freedom of speech leads to freedom of thought, but all too often universities are teaching students what to think instead of how to think. This bill affirms the ability to engage in the free exchange of ideas without the fear of intimidation or disruption,” Kapenga said in a news release. 

Supporters of the bill have shared experiences where free speech has been stifled on University of Wisconsin campuses.

Conservative speaker Ben Shapiro gave a speech at UW-Madison in 2016 where protesters blocked the stage and interrupted Shapiro’s speech, as the University of Wisconsin Badger Herald reported at the time.  

At UW-Stevens Point, administrators overruled the student government in 2017 to allow students to create a Turning Point USA chapter, as Campus Reform reported

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But some student groups say this bill is unnecessary because of a policy the Board of Regents passed in 2017. 

Connor Mathias, the vice president of the UW-Milwaukee Student Association, stated in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio that it is “unnecessary for the state Legislature to mandate this.” Laura Downer, the chair of the Associated Students of Madison, said that it is better to have campus policy be created by the Board of Regents or campuses themselves. 

But Polly Olsen, who attended the free speech executive order signing at the White House in March 2019 after being told not to hand out "Jesus Loves You" valentines on Valentine's Day, expressed a different opinion to Campus Reform.

“As long as the definition of ‘disruptive behavior’ is clearly defined as, “one who is restricting the freedom of speech of another”, I am in favor of it and can see it protecting all students right to voice their opinions and to hear other opinions with respect from everyone, even those that disagree. That’s the beauty of freedom of speech, it’s the right to agree to disagree peaceably!" Olsen, a Northeast Wisconsin Technical College graduate, said. 

"We all have the right to ‘peaceably’ protest, but when it turns ugly it’s no longer a right, it’s a crime!” Olsen added. 

"Free speech is a foundational part of our constitution," Kapenga told Campus Reform. "Unfortunately, across the country and here in Wisconsin, we have seen examples of free speech being suppressed on our university campuses....This bill affirms the ability to engage in the free exchange of ideas on UW System campuses without the fear of intimidation or disruption and to let free speech thrive regardless of ideology or politics."

"The ability for all students to freely interact and learn new and diverse ideas is a cornerstone of not only our democracy, but higher education as well," Horlacher told Campus Reform. "I am honored to promote and support this. We need to make sure that these protections are included in state statute."

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