Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday the free speech bill he co-authored looks to solve the “crisis on campus” of protesters shutting down controversial speakers.
Critics say the bill goes too far in protecting speakers with racist and hateful ideas, laying out harsh punishments for students who violate policies that they say are too vaguely outlined.
“It privileges some people’s First Amendment rights over other people’s First Amendment rights,” said Savion Castro, a 22-year-old studying sociology at UW-Madison, adding that those speakers are often “questioning people’s humanity.”
But Vos, R-Rochester, testified at an Assembly hearing Thursday that the most unpopular viewpoints have the right to be heard. He also said he hopes those speakers will be “vigorously challenged” by attendees and protesters, though they shouldn’t be able to shut down speech.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant for reprehensible speech,” he told the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities.
Vos co-authored the bill with: the chair of that committee, Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville; Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum; and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, who chairs the Senate’s higher ed committee.
The bill would require the UW System to adopt a policy on freedom of expression and suspend or expel those who violate the policy twice. It also has several other provisions, including one requiring UW campuses to outline free speech rules during freshman orientation and create a council on the issue that would report to the Legislature each year.
Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, is the author of a separate proposal at the Capitol with several differences. Her bill, for example, also applies to the tech colleges and lets colleges decide how to discipline students, instead of laying out mandatory suspensions or expulsions. Backers of the two bills have disagreed on which version is stronger.
The issue has popped up in college campuses around the country and has gotten the most attention at UC-Berkeley, where safety concerns led to the cancellation of an appearance by conservative commentator Ann Coulter last month.
Last fall, UW-Madison students interrupted conservative writer Ben Shapiro during a lecture on campus, though they agreed to leave after a few minutes and he was able to finish the speech.
Vos said he and Kremer wanted to push against the “suppression of free speech” on campuses, citing those cases and another at Middlebury College in Vermont, where conservative sociologist Charles Murray was interrupted by protesters and violence occurred after the event.
“Attempts to stifle certain types of expression through designated free speech zones and bias response protocols insult the very intelligence of college students and demean the academic community as a whole,” Kremer said.
Dems and the UW System pointed out the Shapiro event continued on after the protesters left. Though Vos and Kremer said they weren’t aware of the details of what happened, they noted they had been working on the bill before the November event.
Rep. Jill Billings said that the backers’ focus on the extreme cases, such as the ones at UC-Berkeley, is wrong.
“I think that’s the worst way that we make legislation, is to take an extreme case and say, ‘Now we have to blanket every university,'” the La Crosse Dem said.
— UW System officials, who testified for informational purposes, said they supported the intent of the bill and that campuses need to do a better job of handling such issues.
“Free speech and freedom of expression needs to be given a higher priority by the UW System, and the substantive and material disruption of free speech cannot be tolerated within the university — especially within the university,” said Jessica Tormey, the chief of staff for UW System President Ray Cross.
She did, though, highlight some concerns with the bill.
Among those concerns is that the bill uses language of “protest” rather than “disruption,” and that lawmakers should focus on preventing the latter. She also said that the mandatory disciplines outlined in the bill are “overly prescriptive” and inflexible.
Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, questioned Tormey on the proper balance of free speech concerns and whether UW should be able to turn down someone who is “purposefully inflammatory” and hateful of certain groups.
“I worry that we’re placing the opinions of these speakers above the interests of the students,” he said.
Tormey said that’s a “very difficult question” to answer because those cases all present a “slippery slope.”
Much of the questioning dealt with a part of the bill that Kremer said he was open to changing.
The bill requires UW to discipline those who engage in “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”
Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said while the word “violent” can be easily defined, the rest of those words are too vague.
“We are going down a slippery slope that could lead to substantial infringement on the First Amendment,” he said.
Kremer said he’s talked to lawyers at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education who have told him that language is too broad and likely unconstitutional. And he said he’s open to changing the language to a more narrow definition that gets at the same point.
He also refuted claims that he said his bill was unconstitutional during a media interview; he noted he “never said that” and that he only suggested that section could be “easily changed” to address concerns with constitutionality.
Vos, meanwhile, said his office had talked to the state Department of Justice about the language to ensure it was constitutional. But he told Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, that he’d be open to looking at different language if needed.
“If you’re open-minded to finding an answer, so am I,” he said.