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North Carolina, Wisconsin Bills Would Mandate Punishment for Campus Speech Disrupters

April 28, 2017
 
 

Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and North Carolina are circulating bills that would require state universities to punish students who disrupt campus speech and remain neutral on political and social issues. Both are based on model legislation from the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank.

In North Carolina, House Bill 527 mandates that public universities “ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression,” according to The News & Observer. Institutions would have to teach students about free speech during freshman orientation and punish those who disrupt or otherwise interfere with invited speakers and others’ free speech rights. The bill, which passed the state House, 88 to 32, this week, would also require the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to establish a Committee on Free Expression to report annually on university barriers to free speech and how it maintains “a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues,” The News & Observer reported. In response, some legislators have wondered whether the bill will bar scientists from talking about such things as climate change.

The Wisconsin bill’s authors described it in a memo to fellow lawmakers this week as "Republicans' promise to protect the freedom of expression on college campuses in order to encourage the broadening of thought and growth of ideas," according to the Wisconsin State-Journal. Under the Campus Free Speech Act, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents would be required to develop a free expression policy stating that universities' "primary function … is the discovery, improvement, transmission and dissemination of knowledge," and that it is not the role of an institution "to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment," the State-Journal reported. The board also would have to develop rules for disciplinary hearings and sanctions for anyone affiliated with a state university who "interferes with the free expression of others." Any student found to have violated the policy twice would be subject to a suspension of at least one semester, up to expulsion.

A spokesperson for the Madison campus said that it shares lawmakers' goal of ensuring free expression, but that it already has policies in place for dealing with misconduct. So mandating certain sanctions would take power away from campus committees to administer appropriate punishments, the spokesperson, John Lucas, said.

The Goldwater model legislation was co-written by Stanley Kurtz, who has written frequently about campus speech debates for the National Review. “As both a deeply held commitment and a living tradition, freedom of speech is dying on our college campuses and is increasingly imperiled in society at large,” it says. “Nowhere is the need for open debate more important than on America’s college campuses.” Among other things, it says that “any student who has twice been found guilty of infringing the expressive rights of others will be suspended for a minimum of one year, or expelled.”

The model says that it’s inspired in part by the University of Chicago’s 2015 Stone Report on free speech, which articulates the institution's commitment to uninhibited debate. Chicago also recently released a report recommending punishments for those who disrupt campus speech, though it says that sanctions should be developed by a campus committee on a case-by-case basis.

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