Campus ‘free speech’ bill advancing in Legislature

The Capitol Report

Democrats and free speech advocates are ringing alarm bells over a Republican bill that would sanction students who interfere with a speaker on campus.

The GOP-run Assembly passed it June 21 on a 61-36 vote with some late-addition tweaks and sent it to the state Senate, where a top Republican is pushing a competing bill.

Backed by Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, the competing bill would let colleges decide how to discipline their students, instead of laying out mandatory suspensions and expulsions. That bill also would put into state statutes language prohibiting disruptive protests.

The bills stem from conservative outrage over protests of controversial speakers on college campuses. Speaker Robin Vos, one of those pushing the strict Assembly bill, has complained that there are too few conservative speakers on college campuses.

Democrats say the bill is an unconstitutional overreaction. Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison said during floor debate: “It is an unconstitutional bill ... It basically gags and bags the First Amendment.”

The Republican bill, backed by Vos and Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, featured a new amendment that Kremer said he hoped would get Dems on board. Still, all Dems ended up voting against it, along with Rep. Bob Gannon, R-West Bend, who was the only Republican to oppose it.

The legislation had originally passed the Assembly higher education committee with an amendment that would alter the penalties for those who violate the policy and narrow language about what kind of behavior would lead to sanctions.

The new amendment also makes one key change: it would get rid of the Council on Free Expression, which would have been a 15-member group that would have reported annually to the Legislature. That duty would be transferred to the Board of Regents.

Still, Dems argued the amendment, which passed on a voice vote, wouldn’t fix the bill.

“This amendment does not correct the problems with this bill,” Taylor said.

But Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, countered the new amendment would help prevent any “unintended consequences for new layers of government” under the bill, referring to the creation of the council.

Dems also pushed back against the premise of the legislation, saying the bill would restrict First Amendment rights and arguing the language wasn’t precise enough. Republicans countered the bill seeks to protect both liberal and conservative free speech and give students the right to be heard.

Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, said the legislation was fundamentally flawed, because it gives universities the job to “monitor free speech.”

“What we’re trying to do here is suppress both the right to free speech and the right to protest whoever is making a speech that you don’t like,” he said.

But Vos, R-Rochester, said the right to free speech “is being attacked” on campuses, and it was up to the Legislature to intervene.“If we don’t stop it now, there’ll be a chilling effect on society,” he said.

But some of those on campus say the chilling effect would come if the bill passes.

UW-Madison associate professor Dave Vanness recently discussed the bill on “UpFront,’’ a weekly TV show assisted by

“I’m getting really concerned that it has the potential to really change the climate to one of outright fear on campus,” he said.

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