The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents will vote on highly criticized changes to its student misconduct policies Friday, potentially codifying mandatory punishments for students disrupting free speech into official administrative policy.
In October 2017, the Board approved a policy allowing chancellors to penalize students for “violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others,” with suspensions or expulsions for repeated offenses. At its Friday meeting at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, however, it will hold a vote on amendments to the policy that would make punishments not optional, but mandatory.
Under the amendments to Chapter UWS 17, schools will be required to conduct formal investigations and disciplinary hearings after a student twice disrupts another’s speech. If found responsible, the student will be suspended and, after a third violation, expelled.
The vote follows months of vigorous debate and dissent among students, professors and civil liberties advocates who view the policies as too vague or counterproductive.
Thirty-eight individuals and organizations submitted feedback through emails or an online submission form, according to the Board of Regents, only one of which supported the policy as a protection for conservatives and Christians. The majority — including the One Wisconsin Institute, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Conference of the American Association of University Professors — opposed or called for revisions to the change.
“That the punishment could include suspension or expulsion makes the cost of guessing wrong so high that many students may self-censor, an unacceptable result in a university community committed to open and robust debate,” ACLU of Wisconsin’s advocacy director Molly Collins wrote in an email to the Board in August. “Instead of protecting free expression, this new policy will have the opposite effect – threatening the First Amendment rights of students and suppressing constitutionally-protected speech.”
Gov. Tony Evers, then-state superintendent of schools, echoed this view when he was the only Regent voting against the 2017 resolution. Currently, Karen Walsh — who was appointed by Evers in April — remains the only Regent in opposition.
When conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro visited UW-Madison in November 2016, UW more vocally joined an already-frought national conversation about safe spaces and free speech on college campuses. In 2017, Republican state legislators introduced a bill to do essentially what the Board voted for that same year — allowing schools to punish students who disrupt speech.
Lawmakers, however, reintroduced the bill again in August in hopes of cementing education policy as state legislation.
The Board also held a public hearing in August to hear further responses to the amendment. All nine speakers who spoke expressed opposition.
Among them was Timothy Yu, an English and Asian American Studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yu told the Capital Times that the policy is “trying to create this new category of disallowed behavior” and is more concerned with punishing protesters than preserving academic freedom.
“It’s one thing if you’re going to say, ‘You shouldn’t interrupt people. That’s rude. We don’t agree with that behavior.’ Fine, that’s no problem,”” Yu said. “But if you want to say, ‘If you engage in this type of behavior, we’re going to throw you out of UW?’ That’s very different.”