May 11, 2022

Maybe you’ve heard this one before: College campus. Conservative speaker. Leftist students. Outrage. Canceled. It’s an all-too-familiar trend leading to the quashing of the freedom of speech, and it’s happening around the country.

But a funny thing happened in Wisconsin last month. Leftist activists tried to cancel a conservative speaker, but they failed. The reason? Their public university did what all taxpayer-funded institutions should: defend free speech.

Unable to bear being in the vicinity of a speaker who (gasp!) doesn’t share their views, leftist students demanded that the University of Wisconsin-Superior move conservative pundit Matt Walsh’s speech off campus. But instead of capitulating to the outrage mob, the school refused, explaining that as a public university, it is “legally bound by the First Amendment” and “must welcome free speech.”

Perhaps what happened in Wisconsin shouldn’t be surprising. After all, in 2017 the University of Wisconsin System officially adopted the Goldwater Institute’s campus free speech policy that affirms the importance of free expression. Our model, which we’ve already enacted in five states, includes provisions that form a system of interlocking incentives designed to encourage students and administrators to respect and protect the free expression of others.

The goal is to cultivate an environment where free speech is upheld, which is exactly what’s happened in Wisconsin—and not just last month, either. In 2017, for instance, protesters wanted to shut down Second Amendment supporter and conservative author Katie Pavlich when she spoke at University of Wisconsin-Madison. But they ultimately decided not to disrupt Pavlich’s talk, and specifically attributed their decision to the new reform’s “three strikes” discipline policy for those who disrupt free expression.

Both Wisconsin cases show that universities can get it right on campus free speech. Taxpayer-funded schools can carry out their duty to uphold the First Amendment. Students can be on the same campus with people whose words they don’t like, and the world won’t come crashing down.

Unfortunately, what’s happening in Wisconsin stands in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the country, where leftists have repeatedly used shutdowns and violence to stifle speech.

Libertarian lawyer/commentator Ilya Shapiro was scheduled to speak at the University of California-Hasting Law School in March—that is, until furious law students shouted at him, got in his face, and pounded on the tables, forcing him to leave. Leftist law students at Yale University were similarly incensed by the presence of Kristen Waggoner of the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom. They heckled her, reportedly held up their middle fingers, and allegedly pounded on the doors after leaving the room. (The event continued, but Waggoner needed a police escort when she left the building). And just last month, a leftist mob at the University of Buffalo tried to shut down another YAF event—prompting police intervention—and allegedly forced a terrified student to hide in the bathroom.

These disturbing incidents provide case studies into how much worse things can get when public universities do not prioritize free speech. And they aren’t just outliers. According to recent polling, 66 percent of college students support shouting down speakers with whom they don’t agree, while 23 percent think it’s OK to use violence to shut down speech.

Even at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, many students were enraged by the school’s decision to uphold free speech.

“We are aware that ‘Freedom of Speech’ does not condone hate speech and does not come without consequences,” read a Change.org petition—signed by nearly 200 people—demanding the university change course.

“These actions reflect that you want hatred,” one student told administrators during a meeting of the school’s Gender Equity Resource Center. Yet another added: “I would rather just have a safe space.”

Ultimately, free speech won the day, and Walsh’s speech went off without a hitch. But the outraged students’ comments, recent polling, and other incidents from the country show that nationwide, the threat to free expression still looms large.

That’s why Goldwater has crafted legislation to address the free speech crisis on public colleges and universities. In Wisconsin, our reform is working exactly like it’s supposed to. Now, it’s time for more states and public universities around the nation to follow suit and defend free speech. 

Find out more about Goldwater’s work to restore free speech on college campuses here.

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