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Students speak out against proposed UW free speech policy

MADISON (WKOW) — A few dozen people attended a hearing Tuesday afternoon on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus that was intended as a place for people to share their thoughts on a proposed policy that would impose strict punishments, including expulsion and suspension, on people who disrupt others’ free speech.

About 10 professors and students spoke and all of them were against the proposal the Board of Regents adopted back in 2017.

“I fear that this new proposed policy is going to hamper the ability of students to protest without fear of being suspended or expelled,” said UW student Mary Spraggs.

Spraggs and others said they believe the policy targets “marginalized groups.”

“I also discussed how not being able to protest and dissent would disproportionately aggravate and attack marginalized communities from being able to speak up about social justice issues,” said UW-La Crosse student K.C. Cayo.

The adoption of the policy by the regents came almost three years after protesters interrupted conservative columnist Ben Shapiro when he was speaking at the Madison campus.

According to the university, the policy was adopted “amid complaints from conservatives across the nation that right-leaning speakers aren’t given the same respect on campuses as liberal presenters.”

Students who disrupt presentations twice can be suspended and those who disrupt three times can be expelled.

English professor Timothy Yu said he believed the protest involving Shapiro turned out fine.

“This policy could have punished those students who tried to interrupt him,” he said. “When we’ve already had a speaker like Ben Shapiro come to campus, able to have his say and students able to have theirs, why do we want to create a situation where students who, in fact spoke out, are now going to be punished, often very harshly?”

Cayo said the policy also leaves a wide interpretation as to what the disruption would be.

“What does dissent look like on a college campus?” she said. “Is it booing loudly in the crowd, is it going up to them and being like ‘Lets talk about what we don’t like?’ Is it standing outside and peacefully protesting?”

Republican Representative Dave Murphy, who also chairs the Colleges and Universities legislative committee, said those who spoke out misunderstood what the policy is trying to accomplish. He said it would still allow protests and doesn’t limit free speech.

“There’s a myriad of things you could do but going in and actually disrupting that speaker is not one of them,” he said. “Disrupting other peoples’ free speech rights is not the right thing to do.”

Murphy did say he would work to clarify the policy and its penalties in the coming weeks. Because campus policy can be overturned, he said, they plan to work harder to get legislation passed.

On Tuesday, lawmakers announced they would resurrect the bill at the state level. The measure passed in the state Assembly late last session, but died in the state Senate.

The regents will use the public comments to inform their decisions in the coming months. The testimony will be used to help them write a scope statement outlining administrative rules enacting the policy, the university said in a statement.

The legislature’s Rules Committee directed the UW System to hold the hearing. Written comments are still being accepted. You can send them by email to or through the link here or here.

You can find the scope statement here.

Sara Maslar-Donar

Reporter, WKOW 27 News

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