As the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on free speech focusing on college administrators taking actions to stifle free expression, state lawmakers attempt to restrict freedom on campus by passing controversial legislation.
According to the Atlantic, Republican lawmakers in the Wisconsin State Assembly are advancing legislation that would penalize students who protest college speakers, effectively intervening with college policies unilaterally and threatening students who are peacefully protesting speakers they disagree with.
According to the proposed legislation, if a student gets “two or more complaints about disruptive conduct during a speech or presentation,” he or she could be required to be suspended for at least one semester. A third violation would then require colleges to expel the “problematic” student.
Part of the problem with the bill is how the violations would be assessed as such.
The bill's text explains that “[a]nyone who feels their expressive rights are violated can file a complaint,” meaning that the legislation doesn't detail what may be considered “disruptive conduct.” As a result, those who feel attacked in arbitrary ways, even if no violence or actual disruption occurred, may file complaints that would eventually be seen as violations.
Wisconsin State Rep. Jesse Kremer said the legislation would still allow people to protest and disagree. What the bill would do, he stated, is to offer a response to situations when students feel their free speech rights are being violated due to disturbances.
“It’s that the person in a forum has the right to get their point across without being disrupted,” he said.
To critics, such as Democratic State Rep. Lisa Subeck, this bill poses a real threat to free speech.
“Our colleges and universities should be a place to vigorously debate ideas and ultimately learn from one another,” she told reporters. “Instead, this campus gag rule creates an atmosphere of fear where free expression and dissent are discouraged.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has issued some constructive criticism to legislators trying to push this bill through the state Senate, Atlantic reported. Instead of mandating sanctions for anything that students may find disruptive, the organization suggested enacting sanctions only for substantial disruptions. After all, “not all disruptions are equal in their severity, and sanctions should be proportional to the offense,” the organization added.
The bill, which has already passed the Assembly, is now in the Senate and should be reviewed by lawmakers in the near future.
It might be too early to know what will happen in the Senate, but it is clear that many lawmakers are rather confused as to how best to protect free speech on campus.
Without a good look at the real-world consequences of such laws, it's impossible to determine whether free speech is, indeed, being protected. And it looks as if they aren't very concerned about the consequences of this bill at the present moment.