The “Campus Free Speech Act” is the Wisconsin right’s newest weapon

Assembly Bill 299 tells UW System students to debate and disagree, but only in Republican-approved ways.

Assembly Bill 299 tells UW System students to debate and disagree, but only in Republican-approved ways.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

With Assembly Bill 299 moving through the Wisconsin legislature, the debate around the boundaries of free speech on college campuses appears to have reached an ironic impasse. The bill’s main Republican sponsors, Rep. Jesse Kremer and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, say they advanced it to protect speech in a UW System environment that promotes free and open thought, but if Governor Scott Walker signs it, the bill will only end up silencing and persecuting students who exercise the option of challenging speech they disagree with.  

Also known as the “Campus Free Speech Act,” 299, which passed the Assembly last week, is now on its way to the state Senate, with the ostensible goal of making sure the UW System remains an open, neutral marketplace where all ideas can be heard without threat of violence or interruption. On top of imposing a three-strikes rule for individuals reported for disrupting other people’s speeches—the first two resulting in a hearing and possible suspension, the third requiring expulsion—299 implores the institutions within the UW System to remain neutral on public policy issues, removing any potential perspectives or hardline stances on dangerous, harmful thoughts.

Regardless of ideology or party affiliation, it’s important to recognize and reemphasize the necessity of exchanging and challenging ideas in a productive manner. Where colleges pride themselves as upper echelon spaces for discourse to occur, there remains a non-negotiable necessity to adequately present a diversity of ideas no matter who holds the power in the legislature or which ideologies prevail in the campus climate. That said, the current push for 299 registers less as a defense of freedom in a pivotal moment and more like a Republican-driven assault rooted condescension and fear—fear for the power of speech, fear for the power of opposition, and fear of ideas and expressions that don’t align with the political right.

The bill does nothing to explain what constitutes, in its language, “interfering with the expressive rights of others.” Students and faculty can spontaneously express themselves under the first First Amendment as long as they don’t violate the law, but these same students and faculty are restricted from interfering with someone else’s right to listen to “expressive activity.” There’s a great divide between an expression of free speech that’s uncomfortable and challenging, and speech that’s irresponsible and dehumanizing. Who’s setting the bar for that line? What constitutes an interruption that’s worthy of sanction if the right to react remains somewhat intact? Is a shout-out worthy of a disciplinary hearing? Does the right to participate in “expressive activity” somehow contort itself in AB 299 to exclude vehement reactions to repulsive ideologies? Does it not force us marginalized students to separate bigotry from the very real threats it presents to their well-being, and treat their own dehumanization as mere sporting intellectual discomfort?

Doesn’t the bill’s overly broad wording open itself to abuse, inviting people to target and silence those with opposing viewpoints under the guise of punishing “interference”? Is this bill truly bolstering the right to challenge and protest ideas for all, or is it a strategic ploy to silence liberals who don’t protest the way Republicans would like them to?

Republicans (and therefore exaggerated right-wing narratives) dominate Wisconsin’s legislature, so there’d be no AB 299 without a lingering fear of incidents resembling recent events at UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis. At both campuses, students felt threatened and attacked by the rhetoric of far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos and shut his events down. The UW System has yet to deal with a protests of such scale or violence over a campus speaker, and the majority of our legislators appear hell-bent on imposing whatever sanctions are necessary to prevent it. Presumably they’d also want UW System campuses inviting such controversial speakers to stick to their guns without fear of riots. But 299’s and its supporters fail to consider that it took more than a few angry students to do Yiannopoulos in. With or without the violence in California, his comments on pedophilia would have cost him a book deal, his job as an editor at Breitbart, and a few speaking engagements, including one at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. Not every right-winger who comes to ruin can blame it all on the rabble-rousing left. In this case, a broad spectrum of society decided that Yiannopoulos was unworthy of platforms and resources.

Yiannopoulos’ pedophilia comments, which he has insisted were a joke taken out of context, were an exercise of free speech. If it had come down to those comments alone, universities would’ve pulled their speaking invitations without hesitation. But under AB 299, it would be forbidden to disinvite or disrupt Milo for using free speech to promote a white-nationalist ideology and criticize sanctuary campuses that protect undocumented students.

In December 2016, Yiannopoulos publicly berated a transgender woman at UW-Milwaukee, misgendering her and calling trans identity a “psychiatric disorder.” Not long ago, similar language was used to marginalize and invalidate homosexuals, so this attack  was a bit too close for comfort coming from Yiannopoulos, who is gay.

The UW-Milwaukee incident occurred under Wisconsin’s current provisions on free speech. Would AB 299 protect that woman or force her to listen without objecting to Yiannopoulos’ harassment? How can the UW System pride itself on protecting free speech when incidents like this were already affecting students, with the potential for toxic and life-threatening consequences? When our legislature demands an institutional neutrality by sanctioning the interruption of harmful or hateful speech, without clarifying what constitutes an interruption worthy of punishment, enforcement will inevitably hinge on subjective judgments, endangering the rights of students, faculty, and the general public.

Furthermore, AB 299 reinforces the precedent of enabling and encouraging hateful thought as long as everyone gets their turn to speak. This is no way of leveling the playing field. It’s merely a paternalistic show of force. The goal is to silence liberals who cannot handle themselves when their lives may be on the line, when their bodies are treated as less sacred than others’ bigoted ideas.

How many strikes will it take for someone to spread their hate in the name of freedom until we have more trans people outed and targeted, more Black bodies targeted with death threats under the door, more undocumented students targeted with their lives hanging in the balance? If a speaker proposed killing conservatives as a punishment for 45’s election, would they be entitled to book a speaking engagement at the Union Theater right downtown in Madison, let alone be allowed to proceed after warning and uproar from conservative students who’d feel unsafe?

Silence cannot be golden. AB 299 proposes we expend our resources, punish our people for thinking, and usher in a new era of surefire McCarthyism. Freedom of speech is the freedom to express one’s thoughts no matter the circumstances, but that does not require us to validate figures and ideologies that put people in physical, palpable danger. Our institutions shouldn’t be gagged by forced neutrality, nor should the people they serve be forced to comply or keep quiet when speakers target the safety and sanctity of everything they are.

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