Regents to adopt free speech resolution, set up punishment

MADISON — University of Wisconsin System leaders are set to vote on a policy that would punish students who interfere with campus speeches and presentations, getting in front of a Republican bill that would require them to crack down on disruptions.

The Board of Regents is set to vote on the policy Friday during a meeting at UW-Stout. The policy reaffirms the system's commitment to free speech but states students and other members of the "university community" may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others to "express views they reject or even loathe."

"Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the university community (or those outside the community) to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed," the policy states.

Under the policy, students twice accused of engaging in violent or other disorderly conduct that disrupts others' free speech would be subject to a disciplinary hearing. If found responsible, he or she would be suspended for up to a semester. A student found responsible of disrupting others' free expression for a third time would be expelled.

The policy comes as conservatives fear right-leaning speakers aren't treated the same on campus as liberal presenters.

UW-Madison students in 2016 shouted down and traded obscene gestures with ex-Breitbart editor and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro. The University of California-Berkeley cancelled an appearance by right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulus last month. Four protests have turned violent on that campus and in the nearby city in recent months.

The UW policy mirrors a Republican bill moving through the Legislature. That measure would require that students found to have twice disrupted someone's freedom of speech would be suspended for a semester. A third offense would mean expulsion. UW institutions would have to remain neutral on public controversies.

The Assembly passed the bill in June but it hasn't gotten a hearing yet in the Senate. UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the policy does "have similar elements" to the bill but as the system's oversight body the regents preferred to develop a policy. She didn't elaborate.

State Rep. Chris Taylor, a Madison Democrat who voted against the bill in the Assembly, said the system seems to be pandering to GOP lawmakers. She said the definitions of disorderly conduct and disruption are too vague and could result in suspensions or expulsions for students who shout even "Yes!" or "No!" during a speech.

"I'm swearing a lot reading the policy," Taylor said. "It's horrible. The result is killing the First Amendment. This is just going to make university students afraid to speak out."

The regents also are expected to vote Thursday on a new policy on hiring chancellors. The new language calls for releasing the names of only two or three finalists, rather than semi-finalists; developing system staff to step into leadership roles; more aggressively recruiting non-academic candidates.

The state budget Gov. Scott Walker signed last month prohibits the regents from considering only people who have been faculty members, been granted tenure or have terminal degrees for system president and university chancellor and vice chancellor positions.