Protect Free Speech in Wisconsin

The first duty of elected officials is to protect the rights of citizens. Currently, a bill being proposed in Wisconsin’s legislature could be a step towards doing just that for students and speakers at public universities, but improvements need to be made. If amended to remove punitive language, AB 299 would serve as a reaffirmation of the First Amendment and offer real protections for the open exchange of ideas on college campuses.

Don’t be fooled by critics; free speech is indeed under attack on college campuses. From violent protests to “free speech” zones that relegate speech rights to a patch of grass or pavement, it’s clear that universities across the country have moved away from the principles of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, this disregard for free speech has found a home in the Badger State. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), not a single public Wisconsin college has earned a “green” rating, indicating that its speech codes do not pose a threat to speech. Five Wisconsin public colleges, however, have a “yellow” rating. This means their speech policies are restrictive.  Marquette University and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh are rated “red,” meaning they “substantially restrict” speech.

This is worrisome for students. College is meant to be a place where ideas are fiercely debated and vigorously explored. Students must learn to discern different views. In this process, it should come as no surprise that some get offended. But shutting down speakers and censoring speech is not the right way to deal with disagreement. If students in college don’t learn how to cordially deal with differing viewpoints, how will they learn to challenge ideas and beliefs as adults in the ‘real world’?

In light of the present challenges to free expression, Wisconsin needs a law designed to protect the right to speech, including the right to protest. AB 299 is laudable for its speech protections, but the language of the bill does not do enough to protect the rights of peaceful protestors. Just as a controversial speaker has a right to speak, peaceful protestors also have the right to show their dissent in a non coercive way. Both groups need to be protected so colleges can function.

The current version of the bill steps over the line with overly aggressive disciplinary sanctions required for a broad range of protest activities. The definition of interference with free speech is too broad. It includes “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct.” While violent conduct is clear cut, “boisterous” and “unreasonably loud” are highly subjective.

Legislators shouldn’t create such broad restrictions, especially when they are paired with rigid and top-down disciplinary sanctions. The bill specifies that a student twice found engaging in such broadly defined conduct must be suspended or expelled. This provision is eerily similar to the mandatory minimum criminal sentencing policies that have resoundingly failed. Legislative bodies should not be micromanaging the proper punishments for infractions, and the goal of free speech legislation should never be to discourage dissenting speech.

Wisconsin’s lawmakers should do their duty, fix AB 299, and pass real protections for the free flow of ideas on campus. Protecting first amendment rights is a no-brainer. Ensuring free speech would help prepare Wisconsin’s students to critically discern different ideas, and give them the freedom to learn without fear.

Author Generation Opportunity

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