A bill introduced by state Republican lawmakers would penalize Wisconsin universities and technical colleges for free speech or violations of academic freedom. Universities found to be in violation of the law will face financial penalties and potential lawsuits, and will have to notify international students of any violations over the 10 years following the incident.
Wisconsin Republicans have been pressing the University of Wisconsin system to get tougher with students disrupting free speech events on campus since 2017. An earlier bill, which failed, It aims to expel students who shout or disrupt speakers, at the invitation of a student organization, three or more times.
In 2017, the University of Washington Board of Regents passed a resolution that reversed the bill. The governors’ vote and legislation were the result of incidents at places like the University of California, Berkeley where protests erupted after Breitbart’s former news editor Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak on campus.
But the latest Republican initiative, introduced Thursday, focuses on punishing colleges and administrators rather than punishing students.
under the new A bill, any campus that restricts when and where speech can occur or charges “additional security based on expected speech content or expected reaction to speech” more than once in 10 years would face a series of penalties. These include the potential loss of student awards from the Wisconsin Higher Education Aid Board, which must instead be paid using campus funds for one year or until “the university or technical college official is permanently removed from his administrative role.”
The bill would also allow state or federal courts, the state Higher Education Aid Board, or state legislators to balance evidence and decide whether a university or technical college is violating free speech rights.
In addition to losing government scholarship money, a campus that is found to be in violation of the law will have to include a disclaimer on the admission documents that go to potential applicants. The disclaimer will read:
Notice: We are required by the State of Wisconsin to inform you that for the past ten years… [insert name of UW institution or technical college] You violated the free speech or academic freedom provisions of the laws of Wisconsin.”
Finally, the bill would allow the state attorney general, district attorney, or individuals whose expressive rights have been “violated” to sue the University of Washington Board of Regents or the Technical College District Board. If the court finds that a violation has occurred, the chief justice will be required to award the plaintiffs at least $500 for the violation and $50 for each day after the complaint is filed if the violation continues. The maximum award for plaintiffs will be $100,000 plus legal fees. The bill stipulates that these awards come from the campus administration’s budget.
Policymakers respond to bill, criticize student aid component
The legislation, written by Representative Rachel Cabral Guevara, R.A. Appleton, received a public hearing Wednesday with the Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities.
Cabral Guevara studied at UW-Oshkosh. She said the suggestion stemmed from conversations she had with former students who said they wish everyone would feel comfortable talking about what they believed in. The students told her that they wanted to talk more on campus and were afraid to express certain beliefs that Cabral Guevara feared would not be allowed to graduate.
“If I am not strong enough, how can I ask my students to be strong as well?” asked Cabral Guevara. “And in general, when we look at this law here, what we do is try to protect, we try to foster an environment in which students can be free in their thoughts and ideas.”
State Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Murphy, R. Grenville, also testified in favor of the bill. He said enabling legislative committees, such as his, to take disciplinary action against colleges that violate the US and Wisconsin constitutions was appropriate because “the government is supposed to protect our rights to free speech.”
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D. Stevens Point, disputed this assertion and noted that Republicans give themselves powers to act as a court, assess evidence and set penalties.
“You spoke at length about the Constitution in your testimony,” Shankland said. “How does the ability to sue a legislative committee fit with our constitution?”
Murphy referred the question to the Wisconsin legislature The attorney at the hearing, who said a portion of the bill “very well might be subject to separation of powers issues” and that it was “kind of questionable” whether the legislative committee could restrict financial aid to colleges.
State Representative Robert Whitkey, a Racine Republican, said he supports protecting free speech on state colleges, but is “a little concerned” about using state grant funding earmarked for student grants to penalize universities.
“I would also rather hold those who direct these institutions accountable than limit financial aid, because I worry that there will be a lot of unintended consequences for students who don’t wrap up in this,” Wittke said.
After hearing concerns about the scholarship fund’s penalty, Murphy stated that he is open to amending the law at a later time.
Jeff Burrant, vice president of the UW System for University Relations, noted to the panel that public universities have always strived to promote freedom of expression and diversity of thought on campus.
“Our current policy recognizes that each institution bears a heavy responsibility not only to promote the exploration, deliberation, and discussion of ideas in a lively and fearless manner, but also to protect these freedoms when others try to restrict them,” Buhrant said.
Joe Cohn is the Legislative and Policy Director for the National Foundation for Free Speech on Campus, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He told the committee that there are things he likes about the latest version of the Freedom of Speech bill on the Republican Campus and some things he doesn’t like.
Cohn said he’s happy that lawmakers are working to codify protections for free speech on campus into law, but he’s unhappy with the provision restricting state grants to colleges until a campus official linked to a policy that violates the law is fired. Cohen, who is often critical of college officials, said he was glad to hear that lawmakers are open to amending the bill, and said that if a scholarship restriction clause was still included during a final hearing on the legislation, he would recommend a no-vote.