A bill filed in the Wyoming House would seek to prevent protesters or officials from disrupting or blocking free speech on college campuses while requiring instructors be “cautious” in discussing their own personal views.
The bill would instruct Wyoming’s public colleges to “allow students, student organizations and persons lawfully on campus the broadest possible latitude” under the state and national constitutions “to speak, write, listen, challenge, assemble, learn and discuss any idea or issue.”
The measure — dubbed the Wyoming Higher Education Free Speech Protection Act — is sponsored by Rep. Bo Biteman, a Ranchester Republican. It’s cosponsored by a number of other Republican members of the House and one senator, Cheyenne Republican Anthony Bouchard.
Biteman’s bill would prevent students, faculty, student organizations or other people on campus from “knowingly or purposefully, materially and substantially” interfering with a free speech event. The bill defines potential acts of interference to include fighting or violent behavior; “making protracted commotion or utterances”; and blocking or hindering people from attending or participating in the event.
It would also instruct the board of trustees at the University of Wyoming and the state’s seven community colleges to create a “free speech protection policy” to protect the First Amendment rights of those lawfully on campus. The institutions are free to determine proper punishments for infractions of the policy, but if a student violates the free speech regulation twice he or she must be suspended for at least two semesters or expelled. However, the college itself would “endeavor to remain neutral on these controversies.”
“It is not the proper role of the institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech they may find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive,” the bill states. Among other things, this board-created policy should not restrict speech to a “free speech zone,” nor can an institution uninvite a speaker or bar an organization from inviting a speaker, regardless of that person’s views.
Chris Boswell, the University of Wyoming’s vice president for governmental and community affairs, said the university’s policies “already accomplish” what the free speech bill seeks to do.
“The history at UW does not suggest a problem in this area,” he said Wednesday.
Biteman said Tuesday that he decided to draft the bill after seeing protests on college campuses across the country. Last year, clashes over political speech roiled colleges. In February 2017, more than 150 people caused more than $100,000 in damage at the University of California, Berkeley, over a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is a controversial right-wing speaker and former Breitbart editor who, among other things, has called feminism cancer and has been associated with neo-Nazis.
During the Berkeley unrest, one woman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was pepper sprayed by an assailant as she gave an interview. University officials canceled Yiannopoulos’ speech as a result of the protests.
In Wyoming, students recently protested a speech given by conservative writer Dennis Prager, who was invited by UW’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a right-wing nonprofit. The protests during the event were peaceful, though Prager told the Laramie Boomerang ahead of the speech that he was worried he would not be able to talk.
Boswell said it had been several years since there had been any “really significant” pushback to a speaker on campus.
“The most contentious element of the last couple of years has probably been the Dennis Prager item, and that went off really well,” Boswell said. “On the other side, you had Bernie Sanders on campus during the campaign and that went off well, as well. The university is very aware of the potential problems that could occur and goes to significant lengths to make sure there wont be problems.”
Sanders is an independent senator from Vermont who identifies as a democratic socialist. He competed against Sec. Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
UW President Laurie Nichols said in December that when she was approached by students who wanted to invite Prager, she “encouraged them to bring him in.” She said she was then approached by students who wanted to shut down the event.
“But you know that’s an area where speaking about the right to free speech is very important and where we encourage you – this is what a college education is about,” Nichols told the Star-Tribune. “Go listen to what this person has to say. And if you don’t agree, speak up because it’s your opportunity to voice your opinion about it.”
Biteman said he also had received emails from students at the University of Wyoming who were concerned about their First Amendment rights.
“They had specific examples, a professor that would kind of target them for their political beliefs and kind of humiliate them, try to prove a point with them,” Biteman said of the concerns he’d heard from students. “It’s real, I hear that a lot.”
To that end, the bill would instruct the colleges to include in their free speech policies language about faculty members being “cautious in expressing personal views in the classroom and endeavor not to introduce controversial matters bearing no relationship to the subject taught, especially matters in which they have no special competence or training.”
Boswell said he hadn’t heard complaints about students being persecuted for their political beliefs, but he acknowledged that it wasn’t unusual to hear those concerns from people on both ends of the political spectrum. But that’s why the university has its regulations, which he said state that “it’s important to present and not discourage viewpoints.”
“How a statute might change that is perhaps a question of a bit of overreach,” he added.
He pointed to the university’s academic freedom regulations in response to the bill’s provision about faculty speech.
“Teaching may involve controversial material; however, with academic freedom in the classroom, teachers also have the responsibility to respect others’ freedom to express disagreement and alternate opinions,” the regulation states. “ ... Academic freedom does not negate the rights of students and the public to disagree with academic personnel’s work, although students are expected to learn material with which they may disagree.”
Boswell said much comes down to the judgment of instructors and students and that attempting to legislate it “may not reach the level of effectiveness some folks might imagine it could.”
One of the bill’s cosponsors, Bouchard, was allegedly involved in an argument with UW students last spring over a project the students had created about concealed carry gun laws. The students concluded that background checks and gun-safety classes could be toughened, and they cautioned against stereotyping young minorities.
Bouchard allegedly argued with the students and threatened to have their instructor fired and the funding for their program pulled. The senator denied the allegations to the Star-Tribune last spring, calling them “fake news.” On Facebook, he referred to the project as “political race baiting to promote gun control.”
A university spokesman has said the school took no formal action against Bouchard.