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Lawmakers Clash Over Proposed Changes To UW System Free Speech Rules

Proposal Would Penalize Students Who Disrupt Others' Speech

Wisconsin State Capitol
Team Frosick (CC-BY-NC)

State lawmakers clashed in the state Capitol on Thursday over a bill that would change free speech rules on University of Wisconsin System campuses.

The bill would require the UW System Board of Regents to write a new free speech policy penalizing students who “interfere with the expressive rights of others.”

Under the plan, students could be suspended or expelled for engaging in behavior that is “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud” or other “disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”

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Supporters of the measure argue it will encourage a more politically diverse roster of speakers on campuses.

“Campuses across the country are under attack as intolerance and physical aggression have replaced healthy debate and a free marketplace of ideas,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, during testimony. “In my mind, this bill is one of the most important ones we will take up this session.”

Vos has said UW System campuses haven’t hosted enough conservative speakers in recent years.

The UW System has not registered official support or opposition to the bill, but a spokeswoman for system President Ray Cross acknowledged an openness to change during testimony Thursday.

“There’s some legitimate criticism being lodged at the university system, when you review all the speakers in total, that there wasn’t enough consideration of the conservative viewpoint in particular at our institutions,” said Jessica Tormey, Cross’ chief of staff. “We recognize that’s a change we need to make.”

The bill also requires the university to “remain neutral on public policy controversies.”

Opponents to the proposal argue it jeopardizes the free speech rights of students who want to protest campus events or speakers.

Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, said she’s worried the bill’s language could compromise the constitutional rights of those students.

“My concern is that there could be overreach on some of that and some students that are exercising their freedom of speech are suddenly pulled out and disciplined,” Billings said.

The bill has yet to be scheduled for a vote in committee.

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