WI Liberals Fear Effort to Protect Free Speech Will Limit Their Free Speech

Sifting through hundreds of pages of a governor’s proposed budget, looking for hidden nuggets of news, has become a biennial ritual in Madison. The Capitol Times on Monday unearthed just such a morsel, when it reported that Governor Scott Walker is proposing a new law that would require UW-System officials to protect offensive free speech on campus:

In his 2017-2019 executive budget, Walker recommends “codifying the state’s commitment to academic freedom,” and providing $10,000 in funding for the UW System to review and revise “policies related to academic freedom.”

In his 2017-2019 executive budget, Walker recommends “codifying the state’s commitment to academic freedom,” and providing $10,000 in funding for the UW System to review and revise “policies related to academic freedom.”

The proposed companion budget bill elaborates, stating among other things, that:

  • The UW Board of Regents and each college campus “shall guarantee all members of the system’s community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”
  • “It is not the proper role of the board or any institution or college campus to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
  • Members of the system’s community are free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus and “speakers who are invited to express their views, (but) they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
  • “The board and each institution and college campus has a responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

While Walker did not define “offensive speech,” nor did he invoke any political ideology, some campus voices immediately expressed concern about his proposal:

“While protecting freedom of speech is important, it’s also important to protect freedom of assembly,” said Jason Klein, spokesman for Associated Students of Madison. “Just as speakers should have the right to comment on issues they want to, students should have the right to protest what speakers are saying.”

Klein said the budget bill was not clear on what the university would be required to do to protect offensive speech.

“If the university is being told to censor students, that is troubling,” he said.

Nothing in Walker’s proposal implies that it would impact peaceful protests on campus. What may be at issue is whether Klein and others believe protests designed to shout down conservative speakers are peaceful protests and protected free speech. Comments on Twitter and Facebook suggest that liberals do indeed fear Walker’s law would disrupt their attempts to disrupt free speech; and this is being presented as a violation of their free speech rights.

In stark contrast to those opinions are the ones held by a Wisconsin college professor who has been embroiled in a campus free speech controversy of his own for more than two years. Suspended Marquette University professor John McAdams was punished by MU after he published a blog post criticizing an instructor (and graduate student) who told one of her students same-sex marriage couldn’t be debated in her philosophy class. McAdams, in an interview with Media Trackers Thursday, said he doesn’t believe Walker’s proposal goes far enough:

“More than Walker proposes is necessary. There are nice sentiments embodied in the budget proposal…but there is no enforcement mechanism. The reason the First Amendment does not protect free speech at public universities, as it should, is there is no enforcement mechanism. For example, what happens when someone shouts down a speaker, as largely happened with (conservative commentator) Ben Shapiro at Madison. Do the people who interfered with speech get punished? But there is nothing in the budget proposal that puts in place any mechanism for punishment.”

McAdams would like to see the Walker proposal include a provision from the Goldwater Institute where students that have their free speech rights interfered with would have  standing to sue the university and if they win the suit to have their legal costs paid by the university. “Nice rhetoric in the governor’s budget doesn’t mean anything, the First Amendment doesn’t mean anything, without some mechanism of enforcement.”


You can hear Media Trackers Communications Director Jerry Bader’s entire interview with McAdams here.