by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director
May 2, 2017
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign opposes Republican Rep. Jesse Kremer’s bill to penalize University of Wisconsin students or staff who express their disapproval of a speaker while that speaker is talking.
Kremer’s 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.
For instance, what does “boisterous” mean?
What is “unreasonably” loud?
What is “abusive”?
And does “profane” include saying things like, “Jesus!” or “God damn it”?
And what does “interfering with the free expression of others” mean?
Rep. Jesse Kremer
If someone boos for two seconds after an outrageous comment from a speaker, does that constitute “interference”?
Interviewed on the Joy Cardin show on Monday morning, Kremer was asked how he responded to this criticism that the language of the bill was unconstitutionally broad and vague, and he amazingly said, “I agree.” He said he’ll introduce an amendment to his own bill.
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 part of the give and take of a university.
There are other problems with the bill, as well. First, the punishment for violating this policy twice is too harsh: 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). 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.” All the code says is that “the university may discipline” such a student.
Further, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign opposes this bill because it states that UW institutions “must remain neutral 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?
Far from protecting free speech, this bill would interfere with it.
It would turn “sifting and winnowing” into “gagging and suppressing.”