UW freedom of speech expulsion

UW-Madison student Cody Fearing, center, leads a protest of the appearance of conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro (at right in blue shirt) on campus in November. On Friday, UW Regents will consider requiring students to be expelled if they repeatedly disrupt "the expressive rights of others."

KATIE COONEY, The Badger Herald

The UW Board of Regents, mirroring what Republican state lawmakers describe as a push to safeguard free speech on college campuses, is poised to vote on whether students should be expelled if they repeatedly disrupt “the expressive rights of others.”

The proposal is part of a resolution the board will consider at its Friday meeting at UW-Stout in Menomonie, according to the agenda.

It would add to the state’s administrative code a proposal that Republican state Rep. Jesse Kremer of Kewaskum wants to write into state law. Kremer’s bill passed the state Assembly in June but has not yet come to a Senate vote.

The resolution calls for University of Wisconsin System institutions to suspend students who twice disrupt free expression. If students are found to have done so three times, they would be expelled.

The resolution also says “it is not the proper role of UW System institutions to take any action as an institution to require students or staff to express a particular view on a public policy issue.”

The policy reaffirms the System’s commitment to free speech but states students and other members of the “university community” may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to “express views they reject or even loathe.”

“Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the university community (or those outside the community) to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed,” the policy states.

In a scene reminiscent of others on campuses across the country, UW-Madison students in 2016 shouted down and traded obscene gestures with conservative columnist Ben Shapiro.

Board of Regents President John Behling in July directed UW System President Ray Cross to review policies at UW campuses to ensure they don’t violate students’ First Amendment rights.

Behling — who previously directed a controversial revision of UW faculty tenure policies — said at the board’s July meeting that he sought to “reaffirm our commitment to freedom of expression on our campuses, and signal to legislators we hear their concerns and take them seriously.”

When asked for comment on the proposal, a UW-Madison spokesman sent a statement issued in the wake of Kremer’s bill that called freedom of expression and debate “hallmarks of higher education.” But it noted the proposal would eliminate the ability of a disciplinary committee to weigh all factors and impose an appropriate penalty — a process “that has served institutions well for many years.”

Supporters of the proposal say it would help ensure potentially controversial speakers can present their ideas on UW campuses without being shouted down. It came in response to what he and other Republicans have described as growing hostility from liberals on college campuses to conservative ideas.

Democratic lawmakers, who have opposed the proposals, and several faculty members have said they are heavy-handed responses to a crisis manufactured by conservatives. They have criticized the proposed student punishments, warning they would chill free speech rather than protect it.

State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who voted against the bill in the Assembly, said the System seems to be pandering to GOP lawmakers. She said the definitions of disorderly conduct and disruption are too vague and could result in suspensions or expulsions for students who shout even “Yes!” or “No!” during a speech.

“I’m swearing a lot reading the policy,” Taylor said. “It’s horrible. The result is killing the First Amendment. This is just going to make university students afraid to speak out.”

UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the policy does “have similar elements” to the bill but as the system’s oversight body the Regents preferred to develop a policy. She didn’t elaborate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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