Vos, Kremer: Bill to protect speech on campuses necessary after recent incidents

Opponents: Bill based off 'faux outrage'

Students who disrupt speeches on campuses could be disciplined under a bill considered at the Capitol Thursday.

The authors of the measure say a policy to protect all speech is necessary after incidents on campus where speakers are shouted down.

Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, and Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, testified at the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee Thursday that they want to require the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents to create a policy about speech on campus that specifies that disruptions would not be allowed.

The bill also requires the policy include a “range of disciplinary sanctions for anyone who engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”

“In our own backyard we have seen the trend of suppression of ideas as speakers have been shouted down and verbally assaulted by those who do not share their beliefs,” Vos said in the hearing. “Our universities have the obligation to encourage debate and offer a wide variety of perspectives.”

But there are concerns about whether the bill is constitutional and whether it instead would infringe on the free speech rights of those who choose to protest selected speakers.

“I think it is based off faux outrage,” UW-Madison senior Savion Castro said. “These speakers are not being arrested and reprimanded by government officials because they are not afforded the luxury of speaking.”

The issue has come up recently at UW-Madison, where in November protesters disrupted controversial conservative speaker Ben Shapiro . A group of students walked in front of the podium, shouting in the room for 10 minutes before leaving the event. Shapiro continued afterward with his hourlong speech.

“If the university system is not able to stem this unrest and the increasingly hostile shout-downs and hecklers’ veto and censorship, then what will?” said Kremer. “This is the answer.”

Representatives from the UW System said they were looking for better ways to protect free speech, but did have some concerns about the bill, including that it could open them up to lawsuits.

“I know there’s a strong willingness by the Board of Regents to take decisive and thoughtful action on this issue,” said Jessica Tormey, chief of staff to UW System President Ray Cross.

A similar bill has been working its way through the Senate. Both of these measures will need votes in committee before moving forward.