Last Wednesday, June 21st, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed what has been called a “campus free speech act.” It is an unfortunate bill in an unfortunate time.
The bill requires the University of Wisconsin system to publicly support the free expression of ideas and draft a code of consequences for anyone who unlawfully subverts freedom of expression. The main fault of the bill, though, is not its supposed unconstitutionality or the Orwellian, chilling landscape its opponents suggest it will create. The fault of the bill lies with the larger trend and context it is apart of.
For many years, the right has been crying foul over de-platformed campus speakers, the suppression of conservative thought with epitaphs such as “xenophobic,” and even laws that toe the line of limiting speech. While none of these overtly breach an individual’s First Amendment right, they create precedent in a precarious direction.
Unfortunately, with insults like “SJW” and “snowflake,” Conservatives have already taken their own precarious steps down that straight and quiet path. With the bill in Wisconsin’s Legislature, they have taken another step and begun combatting speech laws with their own.
On the surface, the bill stands in defense of free speech, but with vague and nondescript language banning “disorderly conduct” that interferes with the free expression of others,” it will be misused.
Is protesting outside of an event on the streets (an open forum) “disorderly?” Does whispering too loudly with the genuine intent of disruption during a lecture “interfere?” More importantly, would it be a consequence fitting the infraction to suspend or even expel a student for this annoyance?
Colorado is an exemplar of a better solution to the debate on universities. It too has passed a bill with similar intent, but with far better execution. In Wisconsin, the bill centers on the student and compels the University to ensure students are not limiting speech; in Colorado, the bill centers on the University itself and compels the University to ensure the institution is not limiting speech.
A bill like Colorado’s, simply an affirmation of free speech from the institution, combined with the enforcement of already-existing conduct policies regarding the disruption of campus events, would ensure a thriving space of conflicting ideas, rather than a dubious suppression of hate speech and protest.
The situation on college campuses is worsening. When I was there, I was the target of an occasional tongue-cluck of disgust for a conservative opinion in class. Now, trash cans are regularly lit on fire and Presidents are cursed-out by mobs.
However, from epitaphs to laws, the solution is not an ever increasing speech arms race.
Photo Credit: James Steakley