Wisconsin Legislation Would Strip Grants, Allow Lawsuits Against Colleges Violating Free Speech Rights

By Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.
December 29, 2021 Updated: December 29, 2021

A Wisconsin state lawmaker’s new legislation would penalize the state’s public universities and state technical colleges for violations of free speech rights or academic freedom.

The legislation comes after years of pressure from activists and state lawmakers who believe that the University of Wisconsin (UW) hasn’t done enough to defend free speech on campus. A prior measure in the Legislature that would have expelled students who disrupted invited speakers on campus failed to be approved by the state Legislature, according to a Longview News-Journal summary.

The university’s board of regents approved a resolution containing provisions similar to the failed legislation after a widely publicized Antifa-led riot at the University of California–Berkeley on Feb. 1, 2017, prevented former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos from giving a speech. The incident became a rallying point for conservatives nationwide who were upset about campus censorship and the suppression of free speech by angry mobs.

But this new legislation, AB 735, introduced by state Rep. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, a Republican, targets the schools themselves. It would subject offending schools to financial penalties and possible lawsuits. It would also mandate that schools notify incoming students of any violations committed in the preceding 10 years.

The measure, if it becomes law, would punish colleges that charge fees for additional security at speaking events based on the expected content or reaction to a speech. One of the sanctions for this behavior could be a loss of grant money from the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board.

“Academic freedom is something that should be nonpartisan,” Cabral-Guevara told a legislative committee in testimony earlier in December. “Seeing people restrict certain speech because it conflicts with their political views in an academic setting is inexcusable and cannot be tolerated. Academic institutions are supposed to be bastions of intellectual diversity and independent thought.

“However, as we all know, campus administrators far too often decide to censor or penalize speech that does not conform to their or their institution’s leanings.”

The legislation would prohibit the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System campuses “from restricting constitutionally protected free speech [or] sanctioning groups or individuals for speech unless it meets a federal standard of harassment,” she said, noting that the measure would also forbid limiting free expression on campus to so-called free speech zones.

AB 735 would require “institutions to designate all indoor and outdoor public areas as public forums, and make every reasonable effort to prevent protected speech or demonstrations from being disrupted.”

The legislation would also allow the state attorney general, any district attorney, or any individual whose rights have been violated to bring suit against the university or the technical college district board.

Jeff Buhrandt, UW System interim vice president of university relations, spoke against the measure, saying that it wasn’t needed.

“UW System shares the bill’s authors’ commitment to freedom of expression on our campuses,” he said in his prepared remarks. “However, we believe that our adherence to constitutional law and current board policy best serves to uphold this commitment.”

But a review of speech codes at Wisconsin colleges and universities by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) in April 2020 gave UW System low marks, finding that most of the state’s public higher education institutions reviewed substantially restrict freedom of speech.

WILL uses the traffic light color-coding rating system devised by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Red means the school “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” while yellow means that the school “is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” Green means that the school’s “policies do not seriously imperil speech.”

Using that rating system, WILL rated 55 percent of the total UW institutions red. The group rated 75 percent of Wisconsin technical colleges and 33 percent of UW’s four-year colleges red.

No Wisconsin institution received a green rating for free speech from WILL.

“Free speech is under attack on Wisconsin’s college campuses,” WILL deputy counsel Anthony LoCoco said at the time. “This review should serve as a resource to students, faculty, administrators, boards, and taxpayers to ensure that Wisconsin’s college campuses respect the First Amendment and encourage free and open debate.”

Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.