The University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents is voting on Friday to eliminate the “heckler’s veto” used to shut down conservative speakers.
The policy, titled “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” is based on model free speech legislation crafted by the Goldwater Institute. It reaffirms the University of Wisconsin’s commitment to the First Amendment, and is consistent with the Goldwater model’s attempt to deal with the so-called “heckler’s veto.”
The “heckler’s veto” is what happens protesters silence a speaker by threatening disruption of an event, which then prompts a venue or host to cancel it—thereby preventing the speaker from speaking.
The ACLU considers it to be a violation of the First Amendment. When Ann Coulter’s speech at UC Berkeley was canceled in April, the ACLU came to her defense and cited the protest that led to the event cancellation as an example of the heckler’s veto.
“[I]t is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” reads the proposal. “Although the university greatly values civility, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community.”
The policy prohibits students from obstructing or interfering with “the freedom of others, including speakers who are invited to campus, to express views they reject or even loathe.”
To be effective, the policy features a two-strike rule—students “alleged to have engaged in violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others” will be subject to an investigation and disciplinary hearing. Those found guilty of doing it twice will face a minimum one-semester suspension, and a third violation may lead to expulsion from the school.
However, faculty members who disrupt the free speech of others on campus are protected under employment protections outlined in existing university policy and state law, giving them effective immunity to the proposed regulations.
Speaking to Campus Reform, members of UW’s Young Americans for Liberty said they were given input on the proposal, which they call necessary to prevent campus leftists from silencing conservative voices.
“I feel that it is appropriate to punish those who deliberately try to stop someone’s freedom of expression,” he said YAL president Tyler Brandt. “This is an act of hostility to open discourse, one of the most important principles of a liberal democracy. With no action being taken against these ne’er-do-wells, they continue to use the Hecklers Veto as a prominent strategy.”
Likewise, UW-Madison College Republicans president Jake Lubenow shared equal praise for the proposal.
“We’ve seen problems across the country with campuses disrespecting the right to speak, especially for conservative students,” Lubenow said. “We haven’t been immune to that in Wisconsin and we’re excited that both the Assembly and the regents are pursuing action to make sure that right applies to everyone.”
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