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Groups, Students at Odds Over University Free Speech Bill

MADISON, Wis. — A Republican plan to punish students who disrupt free speech on college campuses ran into opposition Thursday at its first public airing in the Legislature, with critics saying it impedes the very thing it seeks to protect.

The Assembly’s higher education committee held a hearing on the proposal backed by Rep. Jesse Kremer, Speaker Robin Vos and other Republicans. The measure calls for University of Wisconsin System officials to suspend or expel students who engage twice in “violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud, or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”

Kremer had said he’d limit the scope of the proposal, but he waffled on that Thursday.

Kremer told The Associated Press last week that he planned to pare down the bill to consider only violence or disorderly conduct, after critics said it was too vague to pass constitutional muster. But during the hearing, he said he’d alter the bill only “if need be.” He didn’t immediately respond to a message Thursday from the AP seeking clarification.

But he noted during the hearing that the Board of Regents would ultimately be responsible for determining punishable behavior.

Free speech has become a contentious issue at campuses around the U.S. Conservative firebrands such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have had appearances in Wisconsin and across the country derailed or canceled due to scores of students protesting what they say is hate speech. Republicans say attacks on the right to speak freely – no matter the message- have reached critical levels requiring intervention.

Kremer said the legislation isn’t intended to promote speech that some people find “hateful, vile and disgusting.” But he said just because some people find it to be so doesn’t mean it should be censored.

But opponents rejected Kremer’s reasoning.

“Far from protecting free speech, this bill would interfere with it,” said Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Savion Castro, a UW-Madison senior who works for the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said there’s a difference between hosting a conservative speaker like Vos — whom he would welcome — and people like the author Charles Murray who argue that white men are genetically superior.

UW-Madison College Republicans Chair Jake Lubenow praised the measure, saying it would address the speech suppression that conservative organizations face when inviting speakers who don’t subscribe to Madison’s liberal values.

The University of Wisconsin System hasn’t taken a formal position on the legislation. But the system president’s chief of staff, Jessica Tormey, said the bill in its current form is too broad and could make the system a target for additional lawsuits.

The legislation is based on a model proposal from the Goldwater Institute, a conservative Arizona think tank behind similar plans in at least five other states. Colorado already passed a law.

Other Republican lawmakers — Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Adam Jarchow — plan to introduce their own campus speech bill. It would also apply to the state’s technical colleges and would go as far as prohibiting students from organizing protests that could dissuade speakers from visiting.

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