Republican legislators in Wisconsin moved closer to creating tougher penalties for University of Wisconsin student protesters, advancing a bill that would suspend or expel those who disrupt speakers.
The state Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities approved the bill Tuesday on an 8-6 vote. That sends the bill to the full Assembly floor, which hopes to take it up in June, said a spokeswoman for Speaker Robin Vos, one of the measure’s cosponsors.
All six Democrats on the committee voted against the bill, warning it would chill free speech on campus and infringe on regents’ authority to govern their institutions themselves.
“The very bones of this legislation are diseased,” said Democratic Rep. Jimmy Anderson.
The proposal’s chief author, Rep. Jesse Kremer, says the measure is designed to safeguard democracy.
“This bill is a good balance that will ensure everyone has the right to be heard and has the right to free expression on our college campuses,” he said.
Under the bill, complaints from any two people about the conduct of a student in the University of Wisconsin system during a speech or presentation would trigger a hearing before a new Council on Free Expression. Students found to have twice engaged in violence or disorderly conduct that disrupts another person’s freedom of expression would be suspended for a semester. A third offense would mean expulsion.
In addition, university institutions would be required to remain neutral on public policy controversies.
The measure comes as free speech issues have grown more contentious on colleges across the country, fostering concerns among Republicans that conservative speakers aren’t treated equally.
University of Wisconsin-Madison students shouted down former Breitbart editor and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro in November. UC Berkeley canceled a speech by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter in April due to security concerns. Protests also broke out at Berkeley in February ahead of a planned appearance by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. And fights broke out at New York University last year after protesters disrupted a speech by Gavin McInnes, founder of a right-wing men’s group called the Proud Boys and a self-described chauvinist.
The conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity has registered in support of the Wisconsin bill. The League of Women Voters as well as a group of university faculty and the government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign have registered in opposition.
Committee Democrats decried the bill as unconstitutional and predicted it would open the door to political witch hunts. Partisan operatives will attend presentations in pairs so they can file the requisite two complaints against students they disagree with, the Democrats said.
“Don’t you see a concern about two left-wing or two right-wing students raising an issue with perceived activity by students attending an event?” Democratic Rep. Gary Hebl said. “Don’t you see the floodgates opening?”