Wisconsin Budget Proposal Includes Commitment to Free Speech on Campus

February 16, 2017

On February 8, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced his budget proposal in the state legislature. Notably, Assembly Bill 64 includes an important section dedicated to promoting freedom of speech on public colleges and universities throughout the state.  

Section 594. 36.02 of the proposal would require public institutions of higher education to adopt and maintain policies consistent with the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in 2015. Section 594 36.02 states, in part:

(1) The board and each institution and college campus shall be committed to free and open inquiry in all matters and shall guarantee all members of the system’s community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except to the extent limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the system, the board and each institution and college campus shall fully respect and support the freedom of all members of the system’s community to discuss any problem that presents itself.

In December 2015, the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents adopted a policy substantially similar to that proposed in the bill. While the students who attend institutions in the University of Wisconsin System already enjoy these protections as a matter of university policy, codifying these principles into state law has three primary benefits.

First, it extends these protections to students at community colleges and other public institutions throughout the state. Second, it locks these principles into place as a matter of law, where now, the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents could simply revoke the policy if it ever had a change of heart. And finally, inserting free speech principles into the gubernatorial budget sends a clear signal to students and institutions alike that free expression on campus is an important value that the state government wants protected.

Critics of the governor’s proposal have expressed concern that the bill would limit people’s ability to protest against speech they disagree with or find offensive. With respect to this concern, the bill itself states:

The system’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the system’s community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrongheaded. It is for the individual members of the system’s community, not for the board or any institution or college campus, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Fostering the ability of members of the system’s community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the system’s educational mission.

FIRE is satisfied that if this language is implemented faithfully, people will remain free to peacefully protest or criticize speakers or ideas they disagree with or find offensive. Only conduct that prevents others from exercising their free speech rights would be prohibited. FIRE supports this approach because, while we will defend the right to peacefully protest regardless of viewpoint, violent protests and actions that actually stifle or disrupt speech are not protected under the First Amendment.

FIRE is thrilled to see this language proposed in the budget and hopes the legislature approves it.