Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

The backers of two competing bills aimed at preventing the “heckler’s veto” on college campuses disagree on which version is stronger.

But liberal critics are slamming both versions as proposals that would create “safe spaces for racists.”

The bills aim to ensure controversial speakers can give speeches on college campuses without being disrupted by protesters. The debate comes a week after conservative commentator Ann Coulter cancelled an appearance at UC-Berkeley due to safety concerns.

Sen. Leah Vukmir’s office says the bill she laid out Wednesday includes more legislative oversight to ensure campuses are complying with state statutes. Vukmir, R-Brookfield, authored the bill with Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake.

But Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, said it’s a “watered-down” version of the proposal he announced last week. Kremer’s co-authors are Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and the two co-chairs of the Legislature’s higher ed committees: Rep. Dave Murphy and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf.

“It’s paying lip service to a problem we’re trying to fix,” Kremer said.

Among the differences between the bills is that Kremer’s applies to UW System campuses, while Vukmir’s applies to those campuses and the tech colleges.

The disciplinary process for students who violate others’ free speech rights also differs substantially.

Kremer’s bill would require the UW System to adopt a policy on freedom of expression and sanction students who violate that policy. Those who violate the policy twice would then be suspended or expelled. Kremer said that approach is a strong deterrent and “creates a behavioral change.”

Vukmir’s bill would allow colleges to decide how to discipline their students, instead of laying out mandatory suspensions and expulsions. It also would put into state statutes language prohibiting disruptive protests.

Jessica Ward, Vukmir’s chief of staff, said the bill would provide greater legislative oversight by requiring the UW System and the tech college system to draft rules outlining a “strict disciplinary system” for those who break the statutes, ensuring lawmakers review and approve those rules.

“If you’re not holding them accountable, by simply saying they should be putting in a policy as opposed to [adding a] statute, then you’re going to have a problem,” she said.

Vukmir’s bill also would require colleges to “make all reasonable resources available to ensure the safety” of invited speakers.

Kremer’s bill has other provisions not included in Vukmir’s proposal, such as creating a council that reports to the Legislature each year on freedom of expression and proposing that campuses explain the rules on the issue to students during freshman orientation.

The liberal One Wisconsin Now said Republicans “hit a new low” with Vukmir’s proposal.

The language, the group noted, says people can’t “threaten an invited speaker or threaten to organize protests or riots or to incite violence with the purpose to dissuade or intimidate an invited speaker from attending a campus event.”

OWN says that would mean students could be expelled for organizing a protest dissuading speakers from coming to campus. The group also raised concerns over a portion of the bill saying campus administrators “shall remain neutral on public policy controversies and may not take action that requires students, faculty or academic or university staff to express specified viewpoints.”

“Leah Vukmir is apparently trying to prove that she can take a bad idea and make it even worse,” OWN Executive Director Scot Ross said. “This scheme literally threatens students with expulsion from school for publicly declaring racism has no place on campuses and gags administrators from advocating for their schools.”

Ward said the bill wouldn’t prevent campus administrators from lobbying the Capitol on proposals that affect UW. She said Vukmir wants to ensure administration isn’t “pushing their personal beliefs onto faculty and students.”

UW officials said they’re reviewing the bills and agree that ensuring freedom of expression on college campuses is important.

UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the system is working with legislators on the proposal and thinks the Board of Regents “is the appropriate body to create any policy.”

UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said the current policies “have served well for many years in supporting First Amendment rights” and urged lawmakers to work with the regents on any concerns they may have.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Gannon, R-Slinger, said the issue would likely be solved if the UW System fires any administrators who aren’t committed to ensuring freedom of expression.

“When they walk a couple of employees out the door because they can’t keep a campus open for all, I bet the other campus administrators get the message,” Gannon said.

See Vukmir’s bill:

See Kremer’s bill:

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