This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on June 29, 2017
By now, everyone who’s been watching higher education knows that a growing number of American universities have jettisoned objective scholarship, open debate, and free speech in favor of advancing a left-wing political agenda. Having thrust themselves into the political fray, some of these schools may now begin paying the price for turning their institutions into ideological boot camps.
Last week, the Wisconsin state assembly stepped up to defend free speech at its state colleges and universities. Its “Campus Free Speech Act” calls for the suspension or even expulsion of students who disrupt approved campus speakers. Passed 61-36 in the Assembly, it now goes to the state senate.
Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, has long labored to reform the Badger State’s higher education institutions, as I commented on here. Wisconsin’s colleges and universities, like many across the country, suffer a twofold crisis: (1) tuition hyperinflation (which fuels the student-loan debt crisis), and (2) poor student learning. Having addressed university finances over the past few years, Walker can now be expected to sign this bill if it makes it through the state senate. This would go no small distance toward restoring free speech on campus, and with it, the conditions of genuine learning. In the process, Wisconsin could come to serve as a model for the nation.
Although Walker and many in the legislature have been battling with their state universities for a number of years, the event that precipitated the bill’s passage occurred just last fall on the campus of the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison. As reported in the Washington Post, legislators’ ire was inflamed further when, last November, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s campus lecture was disrupted by a group of student protesters chanting “shame!” and “safety!” Some of the protesters then marched to the front of the room and stood in front of Shapiro, leaving only after campus police arrived on the scene.
Adding irony to insult, the subject of Shapiro’s lecture was “Dismantling Safe Spaces.”
Under the bill, disruptive protesters will no longer find a safe space for their illegality. Disruptions of campus speakers, such as occurred in Madison, would now bring a level of punishment commensurate with the crime. Students enrolled in the University of Wisconsin System would be made to face a disciplinary hearing if they engage in disruption. If the hearing concludes that a student has “interfer[ed] with the expressive rights of others,” the student would be suspended for at least one semester. Additional violations would result in the student’s expulsion.
The Wisconsin bill draws from model legislation crafted by the Goldwater Institute. It also would require institutional neutrality by schools on matters of public controversy. Like-minded legislation has already passed in Colorado and is being considered in Michigan, California, Virginia, and North Carolina. Sadly, similar legislation failed this year in Texas.
Although the Wisconsin bill constitutes a powerful, positive move to restore the First Amendment (which all public universities are constitutionally bound to protect), obstacles remain, perhaps the most virulent of which is the current lack of a bipartisan consensus on just how intolerant many of our universities have become today, and why something must be done about it if we hope to preserve the democratic core principles of open dialogue and free debate.
This lack of consensus on upholding the First Amendment became apparent after the state assembly passed the Campus Free Speech Act by a vote of 61 to 36. Although the margin was substantial, not a single Democrat supported it. Time will tell how the vote goes when the bill is heard in the state senate.
In opposition to the bill, some in the state assembly worry that its efforts to restore free speech will—somehow—“discourage” free speech. “Our colleges and universities should be a place to vigorously debate ideas and ultimately learn from one another,” commented Rep. Lisa Subeck, a Democrat from Madison. “Instead, this campus gag rule creates an atmosphere of fear where free expression and dissent are discouraged.”
Another State Assembly member, Rep. Cory Mason, a Democrat representing the Greater Racine Area, predicted that the bill would “neuter” the state’s universities, prohibiting them from taking “any stance on things.” In addition, Republican Rep. Bob Gannon, suggested that the political left on campus would use the proposed law to prevent conservatives from protesting abortion and gun control. “I’m afraid it’s going to intimidate students into silence — conservative students into silence,” said Gannon.
These fears are not only unfounded, but mystifying—especially the concern that a bill protecting free speech would “create an atmosphere of fear where free expression and dissent are discouraged.” All that the bill seeks to discourage are unlawful violations of the First Amendment rights to which all of us are entitled. As for an “atmosphere of fear,” that already exists on too many campuses, which is the very reason for the bill in the first place. The nonpartisan free-speech watchdog group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), finds that “an overwhelming majority of colleges and universities across the country deny students the rights they are granted under the First Amendment or institutional promises.”
Nor does the bill so “neuter” schools that they will be prevented from offering “any stance on things.” Instead, what it seeks to do is to remove universities from the political realm into which they have unwisely, and self-destructively, entered. Simply put, universities exist for teaching and learning, not for ideological indoctrination and its concomitant squelching of dissent. In a similar vein, those who fear that the bill would “intimidate students into silence” miss the deafening silence already enveloping many campuses.
We can hope that a bipartisan consensus on upholding the First Amendment will grow as public awareness of the campus threats to free speech grows. Little hope remains that universities will take on themselves the task of restoring what they have squandered. The forces of illiberalism, ideology, and censorship are today too deeply rooted in the self-understanding of many of these schools. The older purpose of education was expressed by Socrates when he asserted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates’ vision, which guided education for two millennia, has been usurped by the Marx-inspired project to raise “class consciousness,” that is, to raise awareness of and indignation over “inequality” in the hopes of furthering the struggle to vanquish capitalism—an enemy so toxic that its defenders cannot be allowed the freedom to make their case on campus.
In this light, and whether or not the Wisconsin bill passes the state senate and is signed by the governor, its principles should inform the freedom-fighting efforts of the rest of the country. As U.S. Department of Education Secretary DeVos prosecutes this battle nationally, she would benefit from close consideration of the Wisconsin model.