WDC Opposes Assembly Bill 299 Restricting Free-Speech in the University of Wisconsin System

Statement by WDC Executive Director Matthew Rothschild Before the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities

May 11, 2017

Chairman Murphy, and distinguished members of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, it’s an honor to be with you today. I’m Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, now in its 22nd year as a nonprofit and nonpartisan watchdog on the issue of money in politics and an advocate for clean, open, and transparent government, where everyone has an equal voice. In our mission statement, we extol “citizen participation” and “respect for constitutional rights,” and that is why we are testifying today.

We oppose this bill for the following reasons:

1. It is unconstitutional.

The bill would penalize anyone at the UW’s schools “who engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”

This clause is so broad and vague that it won’t hold constitutional muster, and I even heard Representative Kremer cop to this on Wisconsin Public Radio.

For instance, what does “boisterous” mean?

What is “unreasonably” loud?

What is “abusive”?

And does “profane” include blurting out the word “God,” or “Jesus!”?

And what exactly does “interfering with the free expression of others” mean?

If someone boos for two seconds after an outrageous comment from a speaker, does that constitute “interference”?

If people turn their back on a speaker, does that constitute “interference”?

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign believes that everyone has the right to speak on campus and that no one should be shouted down such that they can’t finish their speech. But the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign also recognizes traditional free speech rights of students to respond to statements they find offensive with the occasional boo or hiss or shout or other expression of disapproval. That, too, is free speech. That, too, is part of the give and take of a university.

2. The punishment for violators is too harsh and inflexible.

The punishment for violating this policy twice is too harsh and inflexible: automatic suspension for a minimum of one semester. This exceeds the punishment for other “non-academic offenses,” as spelled out in the administrative code governing the UW System (UWS 17.09), which are more severe. For instance, there is no automatic suspension for twice engaging in “conduct that endangers or threatens the health or safety of oneself or another person” and there is no automatic suspension for twice throwing “rocks or other dangerous objects at law enforcement” or for selling or delivering “a controlled substance.” But if you boo two speakers, you’re suspended? Plus, the bill would take all discretion out of the hands of the university for the second speech offense, whereas all the rule says is that “the university may discipline” any student who runs afoul of the rules. You are micromanaging each campus, and not allowing each institution to look at the totality of the individual’s actions and any extenuating circumstances.

3. This bill is unnecessary because the current rules already cover the subject.

In 17.09(8), it states that the university may discipline a student “for intentional conduct that obstructs or seriously impairs or attempts to obstruct or seriously impair university run or university-authorized activities.” It also specifies that the university may discipline a student who “engaged in shouted interruptions, whistling, derisive laughter, or other means which by itself or in conjunction with the conduct of others prevented or seriously interfered with a fair hearing of the speech or program.” And while this seems vague and overly broad—what does “seriously interfered with” mean?—it’s already covered, and so this bill is unnecessary.

4. The bill gags the university.

The bill states that UW institutions shall “strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on public policy controversies.”

So the University of Wisconsin stem cell researchers, and the deans of the departments where they work, would not be allowed to take a position on the importance of stem-cell research to cure diseases?

Or the leaders of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies would not be allowed to argue that climate change is real, and caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels?

You are saying that the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison would not be allowed to weigh in on whether student debt should be lessened, or whether higher education should be free of charge.

You are saying that the University of Wisconsin must remain neutral on the subject of sexual harassment and rape.

Or, to bring up an old example, you are saying the University of Wisconsin institutions should remain neutral on the question of Darwin and natural selection versus creationism. This is ludicrous and hidebound.

Far from protecting free speech, this bill would interfere with it.

It would turn “sifting and winnowing” into “gagging and suppressing.”

That’s why we at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign oppose it.

Thanks for considering our views. And I welcome any questions you might have.