Republican Bills Penalize Schools for Free Speech Violations, End Race-Based Aid
The race-based aid bill is the latest action by Republican lawmakers to target diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education.
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The Assembly’s higher education committee considered a bill Thursday that sets free speech policies at Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges and provides penalties for violating them. Another bill taken up by the committee would eliminate race-based higher education loan and grant programs.
AB 553 lays out certain provisions that the authors said are meant to help protect free speech and academic freedoms on University of Wisconsin and technical colleges campuses. Under the bill, UW institutions and technical colleges would be prohibited from restricting speech protected under the First Amendment as long as a speaker’s conduct is not unlawful and doesn’t disrupt an institution’s functioning.
Lawmakers introduced the bill after a controversial survey found that a majority of students who responded said they were afraid to express views on certain issues in class. The committee held a series of hearings about free speech on campus early this year in response to those concerns, seeking ways the Legislature could help facilitate free expression on campus.
Coauthor Rep. Amanda Nedweski (R-Pleasant Prairie) said during the hearing before the Assembly’s Colleges and Universities committee that the bill is a response to “serious concerns raised, both by testimony and by those survey results regarding a perceived lack of support for the free exchange of ideas on campuses, self-censorship and a culture of intolerance for conflicting ideologies.”
The bill also prohibits enforcing time, place and manner restrictions on speech, requiring permits or charging security fees for speakers on campus due to content of speech, designating “free speech” zones on campus and sanctioning people and groups for discriminatory harassment unless the speech targets people based on protected class under law and is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars a student from receiving equal access to educational opportunities or benefits.”
Beyond students, the bill also includes protections for instructors. Under the bill, UW and technical colleges would be prohibited from limiting an instructor’s expressive rights and academic freedom in conducting research, publishing work or lecturing, requiring students to participate in classroom exercises or speaking publicly as a private citizen on matters of public concern.
Republican lawmakers have increasingly expressed concerns that conservative voices and viewpoints are being suppressed on college campuses across the state.
Nedweski cited recent incidents as evidence of speech being curbed including the Medical College of Wisconsin canceling a panel on diversity, equity and inclusion and backlash from students at UW-Madison campus after anti-trans rights blogger Matt Walsh was invited by a conservative student group to give a lecture.
Nedweski, pointing to the survey, said that many students aren’t expressing their “authentic thoughts and ideas because they perceive that it may affect their grades or they worry about being socially canceled” and “self-censor, both in classrooms and informal situations, for fear of academic or social retribution.” She said that “supporting people’s rights to express opposing viewpoints is only fair.”
Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) said she thought the conversation needed to consider the difference between speech people don’t like versus speech that is actually getting suppressed. She pointed out that Nedweski focused part of her testimony on students being “socially canceled” and was concerned about whether lawmakers were going too far.
“The way I look at it is, free speech is us, as a government body, saying you can’t do something,” Emerson said. “You saying something and then walking out and your neighbors are like, ‘You know what? I don’t want to talk to you anymore,’ because they didn’t agree with what you said, those are two totally different things.”
The University of Wisconsin System already has a policy that sets out its commitment to freedom of speech and expression, including a few accountability measures. Nedweski said she appreciates that policy, but said the provisions in the bill would serve as the “added teeth” that will make current policies effective.
“What good is having a policy to protect free speech if there are no consequences when there are violations,” Nedweski said. “People see this and they lose confidence in the administration’s commitment to protecting their free speech. That has a negative ripple effect on the perception of campus culture.”
Under the bill, the attorney general, a district attorney or a person who alleges their rights were violated could bring court action against the UW System’s Board of Regents or the technical college district board under the bill.
A UW institution or technical college would be required to pay out the damages, court costs and attorney fees from its administrative expense money, if found to have violated any of the provisions in the bill. Damages, which would be capped at $100,000, would start at $500 for the initial violation plus $50 for each day after the complaint is served that the violation remains ongoing.
Institutions could also lose certain grants administered by the Higher Educational Aids Board and would be required to put a disclaimer about the violation on all admission-related notices for the next four years.
Jeff Buhrandt with the University of Wisconsin System told lawmakers that the university campuses are “very proud of the policy we have in place. It is a national standard,” and that UW System President Jay Rothman sees it as a priority and duty of the system schools to “help our students more effectively communicate with each other.”
Buhrandt said the UW System’s biggest concern is the penalties created by the bill. He said the UW System feels that accountability is at the Board of Regents, with the chancellors and with their annual review, but that they do want to see more reporting.
“We want to make sure that students know that there are avenues for them to report when these things happen,” Buhrandt said. “There haven’t been many reported incidents, and if that’s a flaw in our reporting system, then we have to increase that.”
Nedweski told lawmakers that the bill is not meant to punish the state’s institutions or administrators, but that it’s meant to put pressure on them to follow the law.
The bill also includes a requirement that public universities conduct a biennial survey of students and employees on First Amendment rights, academic freedom, perceived political or other bias at the institution or technical college, and whether campus culture promotes self-censorship, submit the results of the survey to the Legislature and provide students and employees with instruction on academic freedom, due process and First Amendment protections.
Bill would stop consideration of race for higher education loan and grant programs
Lawmakers also considered a bill that would end race-based loan and grant programs in Wisconsin higher education.
AB 554 would modify certain programs and requirements — including the state’s minority teacher loan program, minority undergraduate grants and requirements for the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University School of Dentistry — so they apply to economically disadvantaged students only, rather than minority students.
The bill is the latest action by Republican lawmakers to target diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education.
Rep. Nik Rettinger (R-Mukwonago) said the bill is a reaction to the recent 6-3 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions. Rettinger, citing the Court’s finding that the University of North Carolina and Harvard violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause, said that all race-based discrimination is illegal and violates the principles of equal protection.
“It’s time for our state and nation to turn the page and progress forward,” Rettinger said. “In the end, this bill simply brings Wisconsin’s aid programs in line with the Students for Fair Admissions decision. It’s time for Wisconsin’s higher education system to follow the law and treat all students and staff equally.”
In response to a question from Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), Rettinger said the bill is “absolutely” necessary.
Stubbs and other Democrats on the committee pushed back on the assertion that the state needs to cut race-based loans and programs in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Stubbs asked legislative counsel whether the state is currently in violation of the Supreme Court decision. Legislative counsel clarified that the admissions case decision only applied to race-conscious admissions decisions, so race conscious grants and loans are still legally permissible.
“Technically, this bill isn’t necessary because we’re not in violation,” Stubbs said to Rettinger.
Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) said it seemed like the bill was “egging on” and “supporting” the Supreme Court to make additional decisions on the issue in the future.
The bill does not cut the programs, but rather eliminates the consideration of race and replaces any race-related terms for the term “disadvantaged”. It doesn’t define what “disadvantaged” means, but Rettinger said that was purposely done so that entities that oversee the programs had the ability to determine what constitutes a disadvantage — except for race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and religion.
“This does not mean that we should eliminate aid to disadvantaged individuals. College costs continue to skyrocket and while the debate on the broken system, which continues to charge students exorbitant rates of tuition, room and board, lies elsewhere, the programs we have in Wisconsin to assist in covering the costs and accessing the halls of higher education institutions must follow the law and shift from race-based programs to eligibility based on true financial [need].”
Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee), who testified against the bill, argued that the programs’ consideration of race takes into account past practices in the US.
“The reason the minority teacher loan program and others are even necessary is because of the need to rectify past discriminatory practices,” Myers said. “To eliminate the phenomenon of race within the context of these programs would be disingenuous. … It is impossible to divorce race from anything in America as race is indelibly linked to the American experience.”
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