As you are likely already aware, there is something of a debate about debates that occur on college campuses these days. Amidst a climate of ultra-polarized politics, there have been several high profile incidents on college campuses involving a revolt by student bodies -- and, allegedly, outside troublemakers -- over specific speakers invited onto campus and topics opened for debate. In reaction to these revolts that generally end with colleges uninviting speakers, some states have decided to try to legislate against this sort of thing in the name of free speech. It's one of those unhappy circumstances in which everyone on every side appears to be wrong. Student revolts and petitions to uninvite speakers are themselves a form of speech and worthy of protection, even if that sort of thing is antithetical to the university experience and ultimately works counter to the aims of the students doing the revolting. Meanwhile, the uninvited and their supporters are shouting about censorship in a way that suggests their views must be tolerated without reaction, which is a complete misunderstanding of how free speech works. As for the politicians, the haphazard decision to legislate on matters of speech in this matter betrays a lack of understanding of how sacred our free expression laws are in America and the care with which any lawmakers ought to take on the topic.
For an example of that, we need only look to Wisconsin, where a bill is being considered in reaction to all of this that would essentially force universities to take no position on any current topic that can be seen as controversial. School administrators are rightly concerned about the laughably vague language in the bill.
The trouble comes from this section of the bill: “That each institution shall strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day, and may not take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day in such a way as to require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.”
While the bills’ scope is focused on public events involving invited speakers, there are a couple key questions here. University officials want to know how far this requirement “to remain neutral” extends. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has spoken out against proposed bans on stem cell research on campus. Would the university run afoul of this law if it did so again?
It's a good and fair question, because once this legislative ball gets rolling, gravity is likely to tug it further down the path than supporters of the bill had originally intended. And it's worth reminding everyone considering supporting this bill that its words can cut both ways. Just because today we're talking about a topic a person on one end of the political spectrum cares about doesn't mean the other end can't use this law to force their views on campus in the same way. Whatever your political leanings, it's worth being concerned when government attempts to stifle the viewpoint of a school and its students.
And, of course, nobody is clear that this is limited even to speakers and public positions on campus, thanks to the overly broad language in the bill. When questioned, Jesse Kremer, who sponsored the bill, suggested that the legislation could also reach its spindly fingers into the classroom...
And although the bill is not focused on classrooms, Kremer suggested that such a student could potentially bring a complaint to a “Council on Free Expression” the bill would create—a body composed of leaders from each state school and two politicians.
...before going completely off the rails.
When one Democrat at a hearing asked Republican Representative and bill sponsor Jesse Kremer whether a geology professor would be allowed to tell a student who believed the Earth to be 6,000 years old that they are wrong, Kremer bristled. “The Earth is 6,000 years old. That’s a fact,” he said.
And here you see the problem. What one person claims to be fact is, in fact, plainly absurd. And a law that protects students or invited speakers from being told that it's absurd, either by the student body or the university, is a laughable law fit for the waste bin. If students and speakers are such innocent snowflakes that they cannot handle having their views ridiculed, then the university is no place for them. This too should cut both ways, of course, except that the students shouting down controversial speakers is itself a form of speech, whereas legislation neutering that same speech is censorious in the worst way.
Do students need to be more open minded on campuses today? Sure, I think that's fair. Should lawmakers with the barest grip on their own reality be legislatively forcing speakers onto campus as a consequence? Obviously not.