Regents move forward on free speech bill

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

The UW System Board of Regents voted last Friday to advance a plan that would make it mandatory to punish students on UW System campuses for disrupting someone’s free speech.

Under the policy, a student who disrupts “the free expression of others” twice will be suspended for a minimum of one semester, and a student who does so a third time will be expelled, according to an agenda item from the Regents’ Oct. 11 meeting.

Currently, individual chancellors are responsible for punishing students if they disrupt campus speech events, according to the UW System Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression policy.

The Regents will hold a public hearing on the policy before putting it up for a final vote. After the vote, the policy will be decided by Gov. Tony Evers.

Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff told the Associated Press that the governor will kill the proposal if it reaches his desk.

The Regents approved the Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression in 2017, which is the basis for the current plan.

The Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression mirrors a Republican bill introduced in 2017 as a response to students protesting conservative speakers.

The bill died in the Wisconsin Senate, and Evers, then superintendent for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, was the only Regent to vote against the policy in 2017.

Regent Edmund Manydeeds, an Eau Claire attorney whom Evers appointed last year but who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, said over the phone that the policy is not the way he wants the Regents to go.

People with opposing views both have a right to free speech, Manydeeds said, adding that he doesn’t know how the policy would be enforced and what exactly would be determined as disruptive speech.

“Someone that’s 18 or 19 years old that believes in something, I don’t know if they should have that on their record as something they were disciplined for,” he said. “To enact the policy, I think it’s pretty broad, but who’s to determine what someone says is disorderly conduct or infringing on the freedom of expression of others.”
Manydeeds hopes to see more discussion on the policy and wants students and faculty to weigh in before the policy comes up for a final vote.

Before last Friday’s vote, the board received 38 written comments from the public on the proposed policy.

One of the commenters was Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Legislative and policy director Joseph Cohn, who said the policy’s language is too broad and should be revised to make it clear that it only applies to disruptions of events taking place in reserved locations.

“Individuals in unreserved locations have not necessarily had their rights violated when their voice is drowned out by critics engaged in their own form of peaceful counterspeech,” Cohn wrote.

Another commenter, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Advocacy Director Molly Collins said the policy would threaten students’ First Amendment rights by suppressing constitutionally accepted speech.

“Giving controversial figures the right to speak does not mean denying students the right to protest them,” Collins wrote. “Rather than restricting free speech, the University of Wisconsin should foster an environment where all voices are heard and competing viewpoints can be aired without fear of punishment or expulsion.”

Commenter Nancy Suitor, a Freeland, Michigan native, appeared to be in support of the policy.

“Conservatives and Christians thank you for protecting those who come to speak and their actual physical lives,” Suitor wrote. “Universities are places where all points should have a voice.”

In a press release, One Wisconsin Now executive director Analiese Eicher said the proposed policy is unnecessary because of a lack of incidents involving disruptions of speech on UW campuses.

“The Board of Regents seems to be more interested in pandering to right-wing politicians than protecting free speech,” Eicher said. “Their proposal would put into state administrative rules a punitive crackdown on students speaking out while protecting hate speech on campuses.”