GOP bill would discipline hecklers at college speeches

MADISON — University of Wisconsin students who disrupt speeches and demonstrations could be expelled and campuses would have to remain neutral on public issue under a bill Republican legislators are pushing this week.

The bill comes as free speech issues have grown more contentious on college campuses across the country. Conservatives are worried that right-wing speakers aren't given equal treatment as liberal campus presenters and some students have complained about free expression fanning racial tensions.

In Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus and the state Capitol, students shouted down and traded obscene gestures with ex-Brietbart editor and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro during a presentation in November. This week, supporters of conservative commentator Ann Coulter rallied behind her after the University of California-Berkeley cancelled her speech citing concerns that violence could erupt.

The bill is modeled after a proposal the conservative Arizona-based Goldwater Institute put together to address campus free speech problems; North Carolina lawmakers are also considering the legislation. The Wisconsin lawmakers sponsoring the bill said it represents Republicans' promise "to protect the freedom of expression on college campuses."

"All across the nation and here at home, we've seen protesters trying to silence different viewpoints," Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the bill's chief sponsors, said in a news release Thursday. "Free speech means free speech for everyone and not just for the person who speaks the loudest."

The University of Wisconsin at Madison's policy already calls for facilitating free speech equally and objectively, school spokesman John Lucas said. Mandating sanctions eliminates the ability of a disciplinary committee to consider all the circumstances of the situation, he said.

"We urge the Legislature to work with the Board of Regents to identify policies that will address the free exchange of ideas and need for order while respecting the existing student conduct process that has served institutions well for many years," Lucas said in an email.

University of Wisconsin System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the system is committed to ensuring freedom of speech at its institutions. The local American Civil Liberties Union didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the legislation Thursday.

Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, called Vos and the bill's other authors, Reps. Jesse Kremer and Dave Murphy and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, "fragile snowflakes."

"These Republicans want to make our campuses safe spaces for Republicans to be free of criticism and subject students to legal sanctions if they speak out," Ross said.

Under Republican Gov. Scott Walker's state budget plan, the university system's Board of Regents would have to adopt a policy stating that concerns about civility and mutual respect should never be used to justify closing off discussions. But campuses could restrict speech that violates the law, falsely defames an individual or constitutes a threat, and students would be barred from obstructing others' free speech rights.

The new bill goes further. The legislation would require regents to quickly adopt a policy requiring each campus to remain neutral on current public controversies. It wasn't immediately clear whether the bill would bar chancellors and faculty members from expressing their viewpoints or if university lobbyists' work would be forbidden.

The policy also would have to include a range of disciplinary sanctions for students and faculty who engage in "violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct" that interferes with someone's free speech rights. The bill doesn't define what constitutes any of that behavior.

Students would be entitled to a disciplinary hearing and appeals. Any student found to have interfered with someone's free expression twice would be suspended for a semester or expelled. And anyone who feels his or her free speech rights have been violated can bring a lawsuit within a year to stop the violation.