A GOP-backed campus free speech bill passed the Assembly higher ed committee Tuesday, after a few heated debates and over Dem objections it would stifle the exchange of ideas at Wisconsin colleges.
The bill advanced with a key amendment from bill co-author Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, which sought to address issues that came up at the bill’s public hearing earlier this month. That includes tweaking the penalties for those who violate the policy and narrowing language about what kind of behavior would lead to sanctions.
Both the bill and the amendment passed on a party-line vote of 8-6, with Reps. Romaine Quinn, R-Rice Lake, and Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, absent.
Dems zoned in on a couple of lines in the amendment, which would require an investigation and disciplinary hearing if two or more people report that the same person is violating the policy, arguing it would lead to individuals making accusations against one another, causing “turmoil.”
“I think the functional reality of this will likely lead to people of one political persuasion reporting people of other political persuasions,” said Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire.
And Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, worried the provision would encourage students to record others’ behavior, “possibly against privacy rights.”
But Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, defended the amendment, saying it “does make the bill better.”
The amendment makes a couple of major changes to the bill. It strikes language that would have disciplined anyone engaging in “indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.” Opponents said that language was too vague and would limit peaceful protests on campus.
The language was changed to say a “violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts” a speaker.
The amendment also changed the penalties for those who violated the policy. The original language would have required suspension or expulsion for a student who twice interfered with a speaker on campus, while the new language maintains the suspension requirement, but would require an expulsion after three strikes.
Today’s hearing also brought up other issues brought up by conservatives. Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, cited cases of he’s heard from students who said they couldn’t talk or “say what they think” out of fear their professor will fail them.
“We’re supposed to encourage diverse thought,” he said. “I don’t care if someone is a Republican or a Democrat, they deserve to be heard, and that’s what this bill does, I believe.”
But Berceau called on Tranel to “give us some proof” of the cases.
“You’re going to hear the roll call, and that’s going to be proof,” he responded.
Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, later said while she was disturbed by the story, campuses have policies addressing those issues.
“I think it’s dangerous business to legislate by anecdote,” she said.
Read the amendment: