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Wisconsin lawmakers approve bill to discipline students who disrupt campus speakers
Wisconsin lawmakers have advanced a Republican-backed bill that would discipline students who continually disrupt speakers on any campus in the University of Wisconsin system. (2013 file photo/Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

Wisconsin lawmakers approve bill to discipline students who disrupt campus speakers

Conservative speakers have taken quite the proverbial beating recently while addressing — or attempting to address — liberal college campuses, but Wisconsin lawmakers want to make sure that doesn’t become more commonplace in the Badger State.

Under a new Republican-backed bill approved Wednesday by the Wisconsin State Assembly, protesting students in the University of Wisconsin system who repeatedly interrupt speakers could be suspended or even expelled, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

After nearly four hours of debate, the proposal passed on a 61-36 vote. No Democrats supported the bill and only one Republican, state Rep. Bob Gannon, voted against it. The legislation is now on its way to the state Senate.

Those who support the bill said it was a needed step to protect free speech on college campuses by ensuring potentially controversial personalities — many of whom are conservative — are able to present their arguments without being shut down.

Republican Rep. Jesse Kremer, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the Washington Post that he introduced the proposal in response to “situations where students’ free speech rights have been taken away.” Ultimately, he said he wants to make college campuses more accepting of people of all political persuasions.

“We don’t want to get to the point of having situations in Wisconsin like Berkeley,” Kremer said. “It’s not meant to hurt anyone. People are still allowed to protest and disagree. It’s that the person in a forum has the right to get their point across without being disrupted.”

Democrats, though, certainly didn’t like the bill.

The state’s liberal lawmakers are concerned the legislation could have a chilling effect on free speech.

“Our colleges and universities should be a place to vigorously debate ideas and ultimately learn from one another,” Democratic Rep. Lisa Subeck told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Instead, this campus gag rule creates an atmosphere of fear where free expression and dissent are discouraged.”

Rep. Terese Berceau (D) described the bill as a “gag rule” intended to block free speech.

“We do not have this manufactured problem of conservatives not being allowed to speak,” she told the Journal. “Republicans want to tell students how they should speak and what they should say. This bill is a violation of the right to free speech on campus.”

And the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin said the bill is “unnecessarily draconian.”

From the Post:

Under the legislation, students in the UW system could face a disciplinary hearing if they receive two or more complaints about disruptive conduct during a speech or presentation. If a student is found responsible for “interfering with the expressive rights of others,” the bill would require that the student be suspended for a minimum of one semester. A third violation would result in expulsion. Anyone who feels their expressive rights are violated can file a complaint.

As for the UW system itself, the bill, which was based on model legislation proposed by the conservative Goldwater Institute, requires the college to remain neutral on public controversies and calls on the Board of Regents to present an annual report on disciplinary matters and “free expression barriers and disruptions.”

The law would also require the UW system to explain its free speech guidelines and policies in orientation materials.

In April, Republican Gov. Scott Walker expressed support for the legislation.

“To me, a university should be precisely the spot where you have an open and free dialogue about all different positions,” he told WISN-TV. “But the minute you shut down a speaker, no matter whether they are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, I just think that’s wrong.”

This proposal comes several months after conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was shouted down by more than a dozen protesting University of Wisconsin students who began chanting “shame!” and “safety!” while he was speaking, hoping to drown him out.

It didn’t stop there, though. Some of the protesters left their seats during the November speech and made their way to the front of the room so they could stand in front of Shapiro, according to the university’s student-run newspaper, the Daily Cardinal.

And several weeks after a speech by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was shut down by violent University of California, Berkeley, protesters, conservative speaker Ann Coulter cancelled her April appearance at the liberal college.

“It’s a sad day for free speech,” Coulter said at the time.

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