University of Wisconsin Badgered For New Free Speech Policy

Some argue the new policy could adversely affect legal campus protests.

By Liberty McArtor Published on October 19, 2017

“Surely a little heckling isn’t sufficient cause to take away free speech rights.” So ends Kashana Cauley’s Tuesday op-ed in The New York Times. Cauley, a writer for The Daily Show, takes issue with a new University of Wisconsin System policy.

The policy will protect free speech on campus, its supporters contend. But critics warn it will do the opposite.

The Policy

On October 6 the university’s Board of Regents voted 16-1 to adopt anew policy that will punish students for disrupting another’s free expression through violence or disorder. If a student does this twice, they will face suspension β€” or expulsion.

In her op-ed, Cauley complains it’s “unclear what constitutes” violence or disorderly conduct. Tony Evers, the sole Regent to vote against the policy, shares that concern. He took to Urban Milwaukee to express his dissent.

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“Students would be expelled if found ‘disrupting the free speech of others,'” Evers writes. “The proposal passed by the Regents does not even provide a definition for the word ‘disrupt.'” (emphasis writer’s)

He notes that under the system’s policy, not even rape and sexual assault merit expulsion.

The Bill

Evers, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, blames the policy on an effort to cozy up to Wisconsin Republicans.

In June, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill mandating the UW System adopt a policy like the one it just did. The bill isn’t law yet; it hasn’t passed the Senate. Thanks to the new policy, though, its language will go into effect anyway.

The bill notes that “any person lawfully present on campus may protest or demonstrate.” But such protests cannot “interfere with the expressive rights of others.” If they do, they “are subject to sanction.”

What counts as interfering? “Violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct.”

Evers acknowledges the fear of unfair liberal bias on campuses. But he says policy supporters can’t name any conservative speakers “unable to complete their remarks at any college or university in Wisconsin.”

The Problem

Maybe not in Wisconsin. But disruption and even violence are problems on campuses around the nation. 

In March, Vermont’s Middlebury College watched a now infamous riot unfold. Controversial author Charles Murray couldn’t give his speech because of heckling. He was moved to a campus studio to broadcast the rest of the event. Students pulled fire alarms, furthering disrupting his talk. Afterward, he and college officials were assaulted by a group of violent protesters. One professor’s neck got injured after someone pulled her hair. She went to the hospital. 

Disruption and even violence are problems on campuses around the nation.

The University of California, Berkeley repeatedly makes headlines for violence surrounding speakers. In April Ann Coulter canceled a speech there because of violent protesters.

More threats prompted the university to spend $600,000 on security before Ben Shapiro spoke last month. As he later reported, the event went off without a hitch thanks to a strong police presence.

As National Review reported in April, violent protests on campuses are a growing and serious problem. 

Too Far? 

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do as a university is to teach students how to engage and listen to those with whom they differ,” Ray Cross said. He’s the president of the UW System. And he thinks the new policy will do just that. “If we don’t show students how to do this, who will?”

But to Cauley, the policy could silence students who differ. “For students who are threatened or belittled by the status quo … campus protests are one of the most compelling ways to signal dissatisfaction,” she writes.

Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, says it’s the issue of free speech has become partisan. And that’s “disturbing.”

“In the end, both political sides have an interest in providing orderly forums for opposing views,” he writes.

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