Lawmakers propose free speech legislation following a year of campus protests
- PBS NewsHour profiled the legacy of student protests that started in late 2016 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which helped spur a national movement at campuses across the country looking to define and preserve free speech in public spaces.
- Wisconsin lawmakers followed the UW protests, which gained national attention on the subject of inviting and supporting controversial speakers to campus, with a bill that outlined parameters of free speech protections and punishment for those who seek to block free speech.
- UW students who oppose the bill say that the new policies are designed to make conservative viewpoints appear as a maligned minority and to foster intimidation against students of color who speak up about mistreatment or underrepresentation on campus.
A 2018 Gallup-Knight Foundation survey shows that 70% of students believe it is more important for colleges to have "an open learning environment" with diverse viewpoints, even at the cost of allowing offensive speech, than to create a "positive" environment by censoring such expression, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The survey also showed that about 30% of college students favor censorship, up from 22% two years ago. In addition, 53% of students surveyed believe "promoting an inclusive society" is a higher priority than protecting free speech rights. Moreover, one third said it is sometimes acceptable to shout a speaker down, and one in 10 approve of violent disruption.
In the months since the UW-Madison protests, several campuses have faced similar legislative pressure to enact stronger campus free speech policies. A professor's reaction to conservative protests at the University of Nebraska spurred engagement from lawmakers that borders on meddling. In addition, Georgia recently joined eight other states that passed campus free speech legislation, while 16 other states have similar bills under consideration.
Free speech advocates maintain that legislation and pressure for colleges and universities to protect the rights of all students are not limited to conservative activists or sympathizers, and that even with students growing in their concern about speech-spurred campus violence, civil liberties deserve equal protection. Institutions will likely be confronted with increasing demands on resources for counseling and campus safety in the next few years as sociopolitical tensions are likely to build along with increasing efforts to build diversity.
- PBS NewsHour Inside the ‘free speech’ debate that rocked a Wisconsin campus, with ripples across the country
- The Chronicle of Higher Education State of Conflict
- Campus Reform Georgia becomes 9th state to pass free speech legislation
- Education Dive Can campuses prevent protests from escalating into violence?
- Education Dive Free speech or inclusion? New survey finds students want more inclusion