GOP Legislators Propose Limiting Protests During Speeches on WI College Campuses

May 16, 2017

College campuses have long been hotbeds for protests during divisive political times. And they've invited speakers, some controversial, in an effort to offer multiple perspectives. But as rhetoric has heated up in recent months, some schools are struggling to accommodate such visits. Conservative Wisconsin legislators think they have the answer.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says campuses have to do something to stop discourse from deteriorating. He's backing one of two bills in Madison, which would restrict critics from voicing their opinions during speeches -- provided the critics are being disruptive.

Vos says protesters have a right to share their views. But he says the appropriate place is outside of the venue or during the question and answer period.

"Do it in a respectful way, not trying to stand up and block access to the speaker, not trying to shout them down so they don’t have an opportunity to give a speech that I might agree with or that I might vehemently disagree with," Vos says.

Vos says a campus should be a place where students can consider multiple viewpoints.

"Students who are obviously smart enough to get into college should be smart enough to make up their own decisions about who they agree with, what they agree with," Vos says.

Republican lawmakers are considering measures to limit protests, in part, because of what happened at UW-Madison last fall. Conservative author and podcaster Ben Shapiro was shouted down by critics numerous times, causing him to stop talking. At some points, he and his supporters in the audience engaged in a yelling match with the critics.

Speaker Vos supports a bill that would require the UW Board of Regents to craft a policy that would discipline people, if they interfere with someone else's free expression. Students who violate the policy could be suspended or expelled. A second GOP measure would let campuses decide the penalties.

As Vos outlined the proposal at a recent Assembly committee hearing, state Rep. Terese Berceau said she’s not sold. The Democrat says she’s bothered by the bill's list of behaviors that could get someone kicked out of school. It includes some that are easy to interpret, such as using violence or abuse to disrupt someone's speech. But Berceau says other actions might be harder to define. "Some of the definitions might not be agreed upon in terms of what is boisterous, what is loud. But what I'm concerned about is the mechanism for deciding (the discipline). Who decides?"

UW-Madison student Eliana Locke appeared at the committee meeting to testify in opposition to the bill that Vos backs. She argues that enforcement would be subjective, so someone could unfairly make a case against her.

"I fear that, even if I didn't intend to disrupt their right to speak, if I simply said something in the space that someone else could constitute as disruption, even having to go through the hearing process that we've talked about today would be detrimental to my academic education," Locke said.

Although Vos didn't like the pandemonium at Ben Shapiro's speech in Madison, the representative might take heart in the fact that Shapiro eventually was able to complete the lecture. And at UW-Milwaukee, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos successfully delivered his speech in December, even though critics swarmed nearby.

LISTEN: 'Alt-Right' Speaker Draws Protests, Discussions of Free Speech on UWM Campus

Things haven't gone as smoothly on some campuses across the country, such as UC Berkeley. Its leaders felt compelled to cancel an appearance by Yiannopoulos, after protesters lit fires and threw rocks, causing thousands of dollars of damage.