For years, freedom of speech has remained a hot topic across America, but recent months have seen the rise of a particularly heated debate.

The violent clashes between protestors and counter-protestors in Virginia in Charlottesville this month provide an eerie backdrop for Wisconsin Assembly Bill 299. The bill aims to ensure the right of UW System students to have their voices heard, no matter what their opinion is.

The bill was introduced by a conservative majority in the Wisconsin Assembly, frustrated with what they perceive as an inability for conservative campus speakers to speak their voices.

The importance of free speech on campusFor years, freedom of speech has remained a hot topic across America, but recent months have seen the rise of a Read…

One prominent example of a conservative speaker facing challenges at the University of Wisconsin is Ben Shapiro, who visited Madison last November.  Protestors interrupted his speech multiple times, which many saw as an unfair hijacking of Shapiro’s right to free speech.

Others disagreed, saying that the protestors were merely using their constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly. They informed UWPD of what their protest would consist of and stayed within their legal boundaries while protesting.

The Ben Shapiro incident is the perfect lens through which to examine AB 299. If the bill is passed through the state senate (the assembly passed it in June), it would allow students who protest in a way that “mutes” others to be punished by the Board of Regents. A student found guilty twice would be suspended a minimum of one semester. If found guilty three times, the student would be expelled.

In photos: Conservative speaker Ben Shapiro draws protest, police presenceThe current political divisiveness playing out on the national stage reared its head on campus Wednesday when conservative speaker and Read…

The bill essentially defends the ability of people to speak their mind by prosecuting those that attempt to silence others with protests. It is an important step in the right direction of ensuring that freedom of speech is not silenced.

Though I do not agree with most of Ben Shapiro’s views, I will defend his right to express them as long as they are expressed in a peaceful manner. The protestors who shouted over him at his speech, while not effectively muting him, did prevent the proper debate and dialogue that democracy needs to survive.

In today’s divisive political atmosphere, it is important to hear both sides out. People on both sides of the political spectrum harbor near-record levels of distrust and borderline hatred for those on the other side. The only way we can get back towards a more harmonious conversation about politics is to listen to each other.

Instead of shouting over him, protestors of Shapiro would have been far better served by taking in what he was saying and asking him challenging questions. Though it may not have changed his positions, debate may have opened the minds of others in the audience.

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My only fear with this bill is how the punishment will be doled out for those accused and brought in front of the Board of Regents. I worry that the politics of those on the council may interfere with its ability to make a fair decision.

Furthermore, the minimum sentences created by this bill do strike me as overly harsh. I believe suspension and expulsion seem too harsh for many of these offenses.

If implemented correctly, AB299 will protect free speech and hopefully encourage productive debate about political issues in a political climate that currently is far from productive.

Eric Hilkert ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in finance.