I have mixed feelings about this report from The Cap Times of Madison, Wisconsin, because while the University of Wisconsin’s (UW) regents seems have taken the issue of students disrupting free speech seriously, I worry about the regents (the University’s governing board) mandating punishments for a single student misbehavior when it doesn’t do that for other behaviors. On the other hand, many universities don’t take disruption of free speech seriously, don’t punish disrupters, and, in fact, in some places students demand that they not be punished for such disruptions.
Click on the screenshot to read:
What happened is that on April 3, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin voted (it’s not clear what the vote was) to change the University of Wisconsin’s administrative code to require mandatory punishments for students who have disrupted the free speech of other people. “Free speech” is not defined, nor is “disruption”, which is why some people have objected, but I don’t much care about definitions, since the punishments will be adjudicated by formal boards convened by the University,—the same process that happens elsewhere. (The University of Chicago has also said it will punish students who disrupt free speech without more specific definitions.) Since UW is a state school, “free speech” must follow the courts’ guidelines for application of the First Amendment, and it’s not that obscure what “disruption” means. It could be physically preventing speakers from speaking, harassing them within the venue, blocking entrances to buildings, making noise during speeches, and so on.
Further, the punishments, as is proper, won’t kick in until a student disrupts others more than once. The regents’ rules start with a warning at first, and then a hearing after the second violation, which could lead to at least a semester of suspension. If you engage in a third incident, you’d be expelled for good.
What bothers me about this rule is that it appears to be a completely Republican initiative, and I wonder why the Left, which has traditionally sided with free speech, is opposing it. In fact, civil liberties organizations have opposed this proposal, which has been kicking around Wisconsin for years. A similar bill passed by legislators in 2017 (but which apparently died in the the state Senate) was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union because, they said, it would have a “chilling effect” on free speech because protesters would be unsure about what forms of protest violate the code. That, to me, seems a bit extreme, since it’s well known what kind of peaceful protests are considered legal.
According to the article above, people had other reasons for opposing the regents’ recommendation:
One commenter said the rule would have the opposite effect and chill free speech, intimidating “students from protest policies that could be detrimental to campus life,” according to meeting materials. Another said that it removes individual schools’ freedoms, “eliminating any autonomy that each campus currently has to adjust for the different learning and social environments present.”
But some of the opposition seems wonky. From another article on the same site published in October:
Regent Ed Manydeeds spoke against the amendment at Friday’s Board of Regents meeting, held at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. As an attorney who has vowed to uphold the Constitution, he said, “it’s a very hard road to go down” to punish young people for saying things they have the right to say. Manydeeds was one of Gov. Tony Evers’ first appointees to the board in April.
This is wrongheaded. The students don’t have a “right” to disrupt others’ speech. They can “say the things they have the right to say” without shutting other speakers down. In fact, Manydeeds’s argument is self-refuting, since the protected speakers also have a right to say what they want to say.
It is distressing that, as advocates of free speech, we “hard liners” are aligned more with Republicans than with Democrats. As I noted, Democrats are the traditional defenders of free speech. The reason Republicans are behind such initiatives is largely because, since most college campuses are liberal, it is conservative speakers who are more often disrupted or shut down. And Republicans may have other motives as well. But I cannot side with those on the Left who want to limit or curtail speech, or who favor initiatives allowing others to shut down or disrupt speech of any kind without sanctions.
At any rate, this new rule may be moot, for the resolution apparently must be approved by Wisconsin’s governor. But Governor Tony Evers is a Democrat, and his spokesperson said that he won’t approve the plan.
So the upside of this resolution is that it formalizes a way to prevent disruption of free speech. The downside (besides the objection that the resolution doesn’t define free speech or disruption, which I don’t see as serious arguments) is that it takes the power away from local administrators to customize their policies. As a UW math professor noted:
Even if speech disruptions are to be considered an offense, [Jordan] Ellenberg said, administrative decisions to penalize a student should be made locally, not by the board. “Just as an administrative matter, that makes no sense to me,” he said.
The problem is that few colleges seem willing to punish disruptors. There are reports that about 60 Middlebury College students were punished for deplatforming Charles Murray in 2017, but the punishments were apparently not severe (no suspensions or explusions, and no clarification of what punishments were levied, despite physical attacks on Murray and his host). Few colleges have risked specifying the nature of punishments for disrupting free speech, though the University of Chicago has mentioned an escalating system similar to the one proposed by the UW regents.
So I’m a bit ambivalent about this, but do think that colleges need to specify that disruptors will be punished. In fact, I think a module on free speech should be a part of every entering student’s program of college orientation, just as new students are now inundated with modules about sexual harassment, hate speech, safe spaces, and so on.
Why don’t we vote?