How trying to make free speech free can really not do that

The state of Wisconsin is in the process of considering a bill that would allow for higher levels of punishment against UW folk who “disrupt” the free speech of others. On its face, the idea seems good: Everyone has a right to speak, so let’s make sure that we let all voices be heard.

Naturally, that’s not the point of this, as previous writers have pointed out. Republicans who supported this bill (all but one of them voted for it; naturally all the Democrats opposed it) believe college campuses are filled with weed-smoking hippies who hate anyone conservative enough to wear socks, so the law is needed to even the playing field. After all, how would a campus be able to host a shy butterfly and resident Crypt Keeper Ann Coulter if a law wouldn’t allow the U to clear away the raging liberal scum so her voice of reason could rise above the hysterics of the crowd?

Today, the board of regents sent out a policy document draft that outlined its response to the bill:

The State of Wisconsin Legislature is currently considering a bill that would direct the Board of Regents to adopt a policy on free expression that includes disciplinary sanctions for those who disrupt the free expression of others, and includes other accountability requirements.
The attached Regent Policy Document, “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” communicates the expectations of the Board of Regents regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression, expectations for those who violate the free expression and others.

<SNIP>

Finally, the proposed policy supersedes and nullifies any provisions of institutional policies that improperly restrict speech, and requires UW institutions to revise or remove any such policies.

This is a good opening and a strong first step, especially considering how the regents are basically Scott Walker drones, to say, “Look, we abide by that whole ‘sifting and winnowing’ thing somebody wrote a long time ago, so let’s not get bent out of shape that Milo isn’t coming to town unless we can guarantee everyone in the audience will give him a hug.” That said, this is embedded way deep in the document (bolding is mine):

4. Restriction of Expression
UW institutions may restrict expressive activity not protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or Article I of the Wisconsin Constitution, including any of the following:
(a) Violations of state or federal law.
(b) Defamation.
(c) Harassment.
(d) Sexual harassment.
(e) True threats.
(f) An unjustifiable invasion of privacy or confidentiality.
(g) An action that materially and substantially disrupts the function of an institution.
(h) A violation of a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction on expressive activities.

<SNIP>

Of course, different ideas in the university community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the university greatly values civility, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community.

Time-place-manner restrictions are part of law, so that’s always been there. The idea of function disruption is also fairly common. The key issue is WHO gets to decide WHAT is a clear violation of the items listed there? I like the explanation that we can’t just rely on civility to say, “Go away. We don’t want you here.” If that weren’t the case, I’d probably never be able to leave my basement and I’d be given food via clothes chute. However, rules are always applied at the behest of the beholder, so it’s worth keeping an eye on this stuff. If you want to make a statement to the regents on this, you can do so here.

 

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