University of Wisconsin students value our First Amendment rights, as they have been a fundamental foundation of our university’s history. In 1960, 500 UW students protested stores that refused to allow African-Americans to sit at lunch counters. In 1972, crowds of 10,000 marched from Library Mall to the Capitol to protest the Vietnam War. In 1973, 1,500 marched to the Capitol on the eve of President Nixon’s second inauguration, and in 2016, thousands participated in the “Not My President” protest against Donald Trump.
We have a long history of standing up for what we believe in and not being afraid to do so. Now, the Wisconsin State Legislature wants to change that. The Wisconsin Assembly passed the ironically named Campus Free Speech Act last June and it will go to the Senate this fall. Even more recently, the UW System Board of Regents approved a similar policy last week. The bill masquerades as a savior for free speech for all, yet it will act as a gag rule and instill fears in students so they feel unwelcome to express their opinions. It’s not a free speech bill at all, it is free speech for some.
Under the bill, two complaints about a UW student’s conduct during a speech or presentation would trigger a hearing. Students found to have twice engaged in disrupting a speech would be suspended for a semester and a third offense would mean expulsion.
These are huge consequences for students who simply wish to freely express their opinions and respectfully disagree. Madison has always been a city and campus where open discussion and dissent have been welcomed, encouraged even. If students are peacefully protesting with the only intention of being heard, then they are simply expressing their right to free speech. The bill stops them from doing so, and therefore it is not a free speech liberator at all.
The bill was passed by the Assembly solely by Republican support. Respect for the First Amendment should be bipartisan, everyone should agree how important it is to preserve these rights, yet this act seems to exclusively target liberal voices.
This is just one more example of how out of touch legislators are from what university campuses actually need. Not to mention, the university already has its own protest policies for students. This is a matter that should stay within the university, not the state government.
Not only does this bill infringe on First Amendment rights and intimidate students from speaking out, it has numerous flaws in the legislation itself. The bill doesn’t clearly define what “substantially disrupts” means, which is very intimidating to students who want to express their opinions, but are threatened by suspension or expulsion. This ambiguity is dangerous.
Another problem is that many students are unaware of it. Students shouldn’t have to wonder whether or not they have the right to protest.
The problems to the bill don’t stop there. Anyone can report a disruption of speech or expression, which means that anyone — yes anyone — has the power to report an individual and launch an investigation. That is a very scary threat for students who want to freely express their opinions.
If the bill is passed, however, students should seek information on how to protest according to the new regulations. To avoid any possibility of trouble, students should protest outside of events or inside before a speaker begins. In addition to this, students have a right to counsel when facing suspension or expulsion, and defendants have a right to legal fees if they are found innocent.
The university should encourage open discussion and everyone has a right to express their opinion, no matter their political alignment. We never want someone to feel unwelcome to share their opinion, whether it is conservative or liberal, but this bill is not the solution to open discussion because it shuts down one side of the debate.
Progress is only made with open discussion and disagreement, and this bill will stifle students’ ability to engage in their right to disagree. It will stifle the UW tradition of peaceful protesting, noble defiance and making history on the right side of history. What if this bill had stopped students from resisting racism, denouncing war and demanding justice?
The Campus Free Speech Act denies individuals the very right it promises to protect and it will abolish our tradition of standing up for what we believe in.
Claudia Koechell ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in history and political science. She is the press secretary for UW College Democrats.