UW Regents Moving Ahead with Free Speech Rules

I’m skeptical.

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents has approved the scope of proposed new rules aimed at punishing students who disrupt free speech on campus. But just after the vote was taken, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Evers said he continues to oppose the rules.

The governor’s opinion matters because any rule change proposed by the UW System cannot go into effect without his support.

The Friday vote was largely procedural in nature. It allows the UW System to work on what is called a “scope statement” that sets punishments for students caught repeatedly disrupting the free speech or freedom of expression of campus speakers or fellow students. Under the proposed language, a student disrupting free speech on two occasions would have to be suspended. If there was another disruption from the student, they would face mandatory expulsion.

The board and UW System have been working on the policy since 2017. The regent’s policy on “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression” was introduced shortly after state Republican lawmakers introduced legislation with similar provisions. Before the matter was put to a vote, Regents President Drew Petersen announced support for moving the process forward.

The issue is important. Too many college campuses have become outright hostile to speech that deviates from modern liberal orthodoxy. Anyone who offers contrary opinions are shouted down and denied access. But regulating free speech with set punishments is a tricky business. At the heart of any regulation is, “who decides?” Who decides what constitutes a disruption vs. expressing a different opinion? Some cases are obvious – shouting down a speaker, for example – but what about a noticeable harrumph? What about being quiet but holding up a sign? Does it depend on what the sign says? Do the lefty administrators who are allowing conservatives to be shouted off campus now get to decide these things? Would this new policy just be used as a bludgeon against certain kinds of speakers? We have a cultural drift to intolerance and this rule might just weaponize one side.

I don’t envy the Regents. This is a tricky business. These issues are pregnant with nuances and context. It is very difficult to write a rule that encompasses the grey areas.