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Lawmakers propose free speech center at University of Wisconsin; First Amendment professor is wary


‘Is this the right way to do it?’

In light of numerous speech infringements on college campuses, the Wisconsin Assembly is taking steps to protect freedom of speech at the University of Wisconsin System’s flagship institution.

But one of the nation’s highest profile scholars on free speech, a political science professor at UW-Madison, told The College Fix the effort may be redundant and possibly counterproductive to its stated purpose.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos proposed funding a new free speech center at UW-Madison, where student protesters and faculty have often sought to restrict those with unpopular views from speaking, such as conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.

The center would be named after former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who pushed through the nation’s first school-choice reforms in Milwaukee.

In a press conference to announce the proposal, which would be implemented through the state budget, Walker, Vos and other Assembly members provided few details on the center’s intended activities. They praised the UW System and had particular praise for Thompson.

Vos told the Associated Press: “Far too often, we feel like there’s only one legitimate viewpoint on campus. This is just going to ensure we have diversity of thought.”

The new center will have no political agenda and will be dedicated to “maximum free speech,” Vos said, but later clarified it would counter “left-of-center leaning” research organizations on the Madison campus.

In a press release, UW-Madison credited the original idea for the “public leadership” center to Prof. Ryan Owens, who started working with other relevant faculty and Thompson himself two years ago. Faculty committees unanimously approved “moving forward with the concept of the center prior to legislative interest in funding it.”

The proposed center has received much less attention than a related proposal to punish students who disrupt speakers on campus.

The Assembly’s higher education committee approved the bill, also cosponsored by Vos, last week on a party-line vote, with all Democrats in opposition, the AP reported.

It would require a new “UW Council on Free Expression” to investigate “complaints from any two people” about a student’s conduct during a speech or presentation, with suspension for two disruption findings and expulsion for three.

A spokesperson for UW-Madison told The College Fix after this article was published that the university has a solid track record in featuring right-of-center speakers invited by students and faculty. They include Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, Steve Forbes and Misha Tseytlin, the state solicitor general.

“And we’ve made clear that we will enforce freedom of expression for all parties and will intervene if disruption threatens to deprive someone of their ability to express themselves,” she said, pointing to the university’s protests and demonstrations policy.

UW-Madison already has ‘intellectual diversity’ center

Emeritus Prof. Donald Downs is unsure about the proposed center. In a phone interview, the First Amendment scholar told The Fix that he likes the idea on the surface, but he is “leery of Legislature involvement and interference from state regulators.”

“Universities should be autonomous in order to promote diversity of thought,” said Downs. He also cited the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, which he co-founded 10 years ago, as “a center for the promotion of intellectual diversity.”

Downs’ center says it does this “by taking ideas seriously that we believe have not always enjoyed sufficient respect on campus,” such as conservative and libertarian thought, religious liberty, foreign policy “and the role of the military in American society and on campus.”

A center founded by faculty is probably better than one founded by outside funding and forces, Downs told The Fix.

Vos’s comments on the proposed center balancing out leftist ideas on campus are “probably true, but it still begs the question, ‘is this the right way to do it?’” Downs said.

MORE: Wisconsin Republicans introduce ‘Campus Free Speech Act’ bill

The professor is not the only observer to suggest this center could duplicate an existing one at UW-Madison.

In a recent column for the Wisconsin State Journal, Chris Rickert wrote “the university already has a vehicle for public policy research — named after a much different, possibly even more revered former governor than Thompson: the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs.”

La Follette was an early advocate of progressive policies such as a minimum wage and higher taxes on the rich, and as Rickert notes, researchers at the La Follette school study climate change among other progressive priorities.

Rickert’s prediction that the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership would be a “right-leaning outfit” prompted conservative blogger David Blaska to retort:

This is of a piece with the huffing and puffing from the Left that the Madison campus needs not to hear from divisive speakers … The same people who defend for-credit courses called “The Problem of Whitness” [sic]. Academic freedom! Except when conservative author Ben Shapiro is speaking.”

Its real job will be spreading ‘Republican propaganda’

Downs’ concerns are mild compared to the hostility toward the proposed center from outside progressive advocacy groups.

Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, told the AP the center would spread “Republican propaganda as widespread on campus as possible,” and what taxpayers didn’t finance, “right-wing foundations, corporations and millionaire Republicans” would.

He accused Vos of “bullying students, faculty and administrators” by proposing a center that defends freedom of speech.

MORE: NC bill would punish students who interfere with free speech

The proposed center has the support of university system leaders. Assembly Democrat Gordon Hintz, who sits on the budget committee, credits that support to their fear of Republicans, who control the Legislature, cutting their funding, according to AP.

In a tweet, Hintz said “does anyone think spending $3 million on a separate conservative public affairs school is a good use of $?”

Multiple phone calls by The Fix to Walker’s communications director were not returned. Vos’s office eventually answered an email, saying the speaker was not available for an interview “because the legislature is busy working on the state budget.”

CLARIFICATION: UW-Madison said the proposed center was the brainchild of Prof. Ryan Owens and was approved by relevant faculty “prior to legislative interest in funding it.” More information about its conception has been added. A spokesperson for the school also highlighted notable right-of-center speakers who have spoken without interference on campus. That information has been added.

MORE: Students could more easily sue for squelched speech under Texas bill

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IMAGES: WisconsinEye/YouTube, UW-Madison

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About the Author
Jeremiah Poff -- Franciscan University of Steubenville