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Wisconsin Republicans reintroduce bill to punish colleges for free speech violations

Legislation would let state lawmakers rule on evidence that could result in loss of student grants and firing of administrators

The sun shines through leaves in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol.
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Oct. 4, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Republican lawmakers are advancing a bill for a fourth time that would punish Wisconsin universities and technical colleges for free speech violations.

The plan would allow legislators to rule on alleged violations that could result in campuses losing student grants, the state firing administrators and mandatory notices to prospective students that the school has violated free speech provisions in state law.

Republicans have long claimed campuses within the Universities of Wisconsin stifle free speech rights of conservative students and employees. Those accusations intensified in 2016 when conservative speaker Ben Shapiro was shouted down by protestors during a speech at UW-Madison a week after former President Donald Trump was elected.

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GOP lawmakers took notice and began introducing bills reaffirming campus free speech rights that also created punishments for universities and students. One of those was resurrected and introduced for a fourth time this month by Wisconsin Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee Chair Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, and fellow committee member, Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R-Pleasant Prairie.

The bill would bar higher education institutions from limiting protests to designated areas, often referred to as “free speech zones,” meaning demonstrations could happen nearly anywhere on campus aside from classrooms. It would also ban colleges from sanctioning speakers for discriminatory harassment unless their speech attacks people for characteristics like a disability or their race.

Schools would also be required to conduct surveys of students and employees on First Amendment rights, report findings to lawmakers and provide annual training to everyone on campus.

During testimony on the bill, Nedweski cited a survey of more than 10,000 students at state universities in Fall 2022, which quizzed students about their knowledge of First Amendment rights and several other free speech topics. The survey was seen as politically driven by some faculty members and even led to the resignation of a university chancellor.

The survey results showed conservative students were more likely than their liberal counterparts to keep political views to themselves. Some conservative respondents said they feared social reprisals from other students. Others said they thought expressing their views could lead to lower grades from professors.

Nedweski claimed during the Monday hearing that “the lack of intellectual diversity and tolerance for opposing viewpoints on UW campuses” is hurting enrollment, though she did not provide evidence. She pointed to a lack of criminal charges for vandals who spray-painted messages on UW-Madison property protesting a speech by conservative author Matt Walsh in Oct. 2022 amid his “What is a Woman ” tour as evidence the school isn’t interested in protecting free speech rights.

“That has a negative ripple effect and the presumption of perception of campus culture by students who may have been considering attending a UW school,” Nedweski said.

Despite the lack of charges, campus officials condemned the vandalism at the time and Walsh’s speech was not interrupted.

The campus free speech legislation includes several punishments for universities if they don’t comply with requirements in the bill. Anyone who feels their free speech rights were violated by campus policies or administrative actions could sue the Board of Regents or tech college boards. If a judge agrees that a violation occurred, the person bringing the suit could win damages of between $500 and $100,000. Also, a campus could be required to print a disclaimer that it “has violated the free speech or academic freedom provisions in the Wisconsin Statutes” on admission documents going to prospective students over a four-year period.

A student’s enrollment would be considered a “property interest” under the bill, which would give them due process rights to challenge suspension or expulsion disciplinary actions brought by a university or college. The national campus free speech advocacy group FIRE testified in support of the plan and said Wisconsin is one of just three states nationwide that doesn’t afford students due process rights.

Perhaps the biggest deterrent included in the bill is the potential loss of millions of dollars in state grants that help students from low-income families attend college. If a state or federal court, the Wisconsin Higher Education Aids Board or state legislative committees like the one Murphy and Nedweski sit on determine that a student’s due process rights were violated more than once over a 10-year period by a campus or administrator, the school would be ineligible to receive funds through the state’s Wisconsin Grant program.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, told colleagues several times that she has grave concerns about state legislators, many of whom are not lawyers, considering evidence and making judgments that could result in campuses losing millions of dollars in state student aid.

“There are multiple guardrails in place in a court of law,” Shankland said. “A legislative committee, with citizen legislators with zero experience in jurisprudence, case law, I’m extremely concerned about them being able to define what a preponderance of evidence is, let alone be objective when we have some members of the legislature who won’t acknowledge the 2020 election results.”

Michael Moscicke, a legislative staffer for State Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, responded that he has faith in state lawmakers, including those on the Colleges and Universities committee, to make decisions that represent state residents.

“And ultimately, even if we don’t have this direct oversight mechanism, the Legislature already has enforcement by funding,” Moscicke said. “And I would rather see it be related to a specific issue than arbitrarily made through the state budget process.”

The current GOP free speech bill is very similar to the last iteration, which was introduced in 2021 and failed to pass before the end of the last legislative session. But, notably, the threat of pulling campus Wisconsin Grant funding and the provision allowing state lawmakers to determine if a student’s rights were violated were removed from the 2021 version by way of an amendment from Murphy.

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