On Friday the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents will decide on rules that would establish mandatory minimum punishments for students who are found to disrupt free speech on multiple occasions.
If adopted, the rules will mandate that students who disrupt the free speech rights of another student or an invited speaker on two occasions would be suspended.
Students who violate the policy a third time would be expelled.
The policy was originally drafted by the Board of Regents in 2017 when the state legislature was also considering enacting a similar law that failed to pass.
Timothy Yu, an Associate Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes the rules, ostensibly designed to protect free speech, will actually impede upon the rights of already marginalized students.
“We’re really talking about speakers that have become notorious for coming to campuses and espousing racist views, bigoted views, extremist views, and really trying to provoke students in the community into a kind of response,” says Yu.
“And the students who are most likely to be threatened by those speakers, to protest against those speakers are often going to be minority students, students of color, queer students, students who already feel marginalized within the University community. And so, those are the students who I think are most likely to be targeted by a policy like this. In a way, they’ll be doubly-targeted,” Yu adds.
Attorney Gary Grass of Milwaukee says that potential “disruptions” could range from vocally shouting down another, physically-impeding a speaker, or, seemingly, nothing at all.
“I had a client once the University considered to be disruptive from just mere presence in a room, sitting quietly, not bothering anybody,” Grass shares.
“So, if absolutely, y’know, sitting quietly in the corner is disruptive,anything can be disruptive. They have very strange ways of interpreting a thing sometimes, and even though I thought that interpretation was particularly bizarre and unusual, I don’t know what they’re going to do with anything unless it’s particularly well spelled out.”
Grass also noted in his public comment to the UW System that the proposal fails to provide an analysis of alternatives given as required by state statute.
“They’re supposed to be looking at different types of policies they could adopt, different alternatives they have to reach the same goal, and what they’ve done in this case is they’ve zeroed in on one and only one solution, which is to increase the minimum penalty against students that engage in protest,” Grass says.
“They haven’t really addressed anyone else who does it. They could to it through UWS 18, which is [about] conduct on University lands, which affects everyone. They instead go through UWS 17, which is only about student discipline.”
State statute dictates that proposed agency rules must include “a description of existing policies relevant to the rule and of new policies proposed to be included in the rule and an analysis of policy alternatives.”
The Board of Regents are set to decide on the drafted rules Friday.
UW System administrators would be able to add the proposed language to the state’s Administrative Code if approved.