We have been discussing the rapid erosion of free speech on our campuses and the increasing confrontations with students who bar speech with which they disagree. The result is that schools are caving into academic demands made by students, including incidents like the recent one at Northwestern where academic freedom is being lost to effective mob rule. It is a very serious problem that has now led to the first legislative intervention. Wisconsin legislators are pushing a bill that would suspend or expel students who disrupt speakers. I agree that schools need to suspend or expel students who are engaging in violent or extremely disruptive conduct like shutting down classes like the one at Northwestern. Notably, while a few suspensions were handed out after the assault on a faculty member at Middlebury, no one was expelled. However, the Wisconsin law is concerning in its language and scope. We need faculty to stand up for free speech and stand up to these disruptive students, including serious disciplinary action.
I generally oppose legislative interventions in our schools. It is rarely a positive element and can lead to political manipulation of our academic institutions by people with little experience or understanding of the educational mission. I will admit that, watching the loss of free speech across the country, I have begun to consider such legislative measures in the absence of faculty action. One of the most depressing elements of this controversy has been the silence of most faculty members. I have heard from faculty who say that they do not want to be labelled racist or insensitive in this environment. There are already rules against assault and disruptive conduct on campuses. They are simply not enforced evenly and actively.
Nevertheless, the law is worrisome in its language in applying a type of three strikes approach to the problem. The bill would require a hearing when any two people complain about a student’s conduct at a speech or presentation. If a student is found to have engaged in violence or disorderly conduct twice under the law, he or she would be suspended for a semester. A third offense would require expulsion.
While all of the Democrats voted against the measure, I believe that faculty members are forcing the hand of legislators by failing to act to protect free speech or even academic freedom (as with Northwestern). The desire to force faculty to act is understandable. I just do not like the micromanagement of educational institutions. Another approach could be to curtail funding for schools which do not protect free speech, including schools that claim security as an excuse to deny conservative speakers (as we discussed with regard to schools like DePaul in Chicago). Legislators could also promulgate new guidelines for free speech and publicly list those schools with a poor record of protecting free speech rights.
This is a real problem and, if faculty cannot stand firm on academic principles of free speech and academic freedom, they are inviting legislative intervention. I hope that it does not come to that. I do not view the Wisconsin law as unreasonable or unwarranted. I would just prefer for the schools to show responsibility and develop their own solutions to this problem.