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University Of Wisconsin Badgers Campus

Inside the ‘free speech’ debate that rocked a Wisconsin campus, with ripples across the country

As firebrand Ben Shapiro at the University of Wisconsin–Madison mocked so-called “snowflakes” the week after President Donald Trump was elected, 18 young activists surrounded his stage yelling, “Safety!”

Those ten minutes would soon become the tinder to a national narrative casting students as one of two stereotypes – the outnumbered right and intolerant left – and universities as their battleground.

Since the 2016 presidential election, clashes on college campuses spurred by extremist speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer have compelled Republican legislators in more than a dozen states to introduce bills to punish hecklers. Wisconsin supported the strictest one, requiring the suspension or expulsion of anyone who “materially or substantially disrupts free expression of others.” While conservative students say it’s eased pressure from classmates and teachers to hide their views, progressive campus activists say they fear criminalization for challenging the overbearing power of the right and its financial backers.

Conservative demonstrator Ben Bergquam faces off with counterprotesters following Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at the University of California in Berkeley, California, on September 24, 2017. Photo by Noah Berger/Reuters

“There’s a myth, that, you know, the liberal viewpoint is the majority viewpoint, and that conservatives are minority,” said Douglas McLeod, a professor in journalism at the UW Madison campus. “[Conservative] viewpoints are essentially predominant in power right now, whether you look at national government or the local government.”

10 minutes of protest spurs state law

Two months after the Shapiro speech, in late January, the libertarian and conservative nonprofit the Goldwater Institute, with net assets of $4.9 million and links to the Koch brothers and Walton Foundation, published “Campus Free Speech, a Legislative Proposal.”

It was a white paper that encouraged states “to change the balance of forces contributing to the current baleful national climate for campus free speech,” by eliminating “safe spaces” and punishing speech disruptors with suspension or expulsion on the second and third offense.

Two weeks later, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who gave a keynote address at the institute’s dinner in 2011, pushed for a policy with similar ideals.

Then Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) on the Assembly floor in May introduced AB 299, a bill that used the white paper’s language. Without saying his name, Kremer read aloud what one of the protest organizers said in the college newspaper, that, “I think if the university already has a code of conduct and [I haven’t] been in trouble for it, I think that kind of says a lot on its own.”

Answering a representative who asked why the existing rules were insufficient, Kremer said that “As we found with that student, it’s not working. And [the administration doesn’t] care… nothing is going to happen to them.”

Kremer’s office was unable to provide any other examples for NewsHour Weekend of situations that it felt necessitated the bill, nor had Kremer reached out to the student he singled out, Ricardo Cortez de la Cruz II.

This was affronting to de la Cruz, a Latino and African poet who was not at the hearing and said he fights hard to get the administration to pay attention to the racism he experiences every day. Having received death threats for his activism, seen the “N” word written on a campus mirror and consoled a black friend who was spat on, among other slights, the Shapiro protest was the last thing he felt state legislators should be concerned about.

But in June, Wisconsin’s Assembly voted almost entirely among partly lines to pass the bill 61-36, with all except one Republican in favor and every Democrat opposed.

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents — with 18 members, 16 appointed by Walker — preempted AB 299 in October with its own policy. It kept the sanctions that had made Democratic legislators nervous and only took formal input from one student, who was not de la Cruz or anyone else who organized the Shapiro protest.

“These policies say, ‘Know your place. We want you students of color there for diversity purposes. We want to make the university look good… but we also don’t want you pushing back or causing a ruckus,’” de la Cruz said.

That same month, President Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has monitored the radical right for three decades and helped the Department of Homeland Security counter extremism, testified at a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Cohen said that the national debate was “taking place against the backdrop of increased activity by a white nationalist movement that has been emboldened by President Trump’s rhetoric … targeting colleges and universities.”

In the 10 days following the election, Cohen said the SPLC documented nearly 900 bias-related acts of harassment, intimidation, and violence and that 16 percent of them were on college campuses. He, like most speech lawyers, said that campuses must protect the First Amendment rights of all speakers and their listeners, while also adding that they should condemn radical ideals and equally protect the rights of protesters.

The Goldwater Institute, the Board of Regents, Rep. Kremer and other supporters have maintained that their policies protect that neutrality.

“I think anyone would have a very tough time pointing to anything in that bill showing favoritism to one side or another,” Victor Riches, CEO of Goldwater Institute, said. “We’re big believers in free speech, period. We think everyone’s view should be heard freely.”

The institute not only researches and writes these white papers, it also litigates cases that support their causes. When it came to the free speech issue, “I think we realized there’s a problem that needed fixing,” said Jim Manly, who helped author the bill, “And it just, sort of, like wildfire, legislators started picking up our bill.”

Separate but unequal power structures

Student conservatives, especially at the time of the Shapiro event, said they were frustrated by liberal teachers using class time to lament the results of the 2016 presidential election.

Alesha Guenther, Madison’s communications director of the university’s College Republicans, showed the NewsHour Weekend a projection a professor displayed to about 200 students — 61 words emphasizing that the election was “nothing short of a tragedy.”

Day after election, slide from UW-Madison class

A slide of a quote from The New Yorker’s David Remnick that a teacher at the University of Wisconsin – Madison projected the day after President Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. Photo courtesy of student Alesha Guenther

Guenther said she thought it was inappropriate, but did not speak out because tension was high and she, “wanted to ensure that my grade in the class would not be affected by my political beliefs.”

Another student from the College Republicans said he lied about his views of an American economist in an answer to a test recently, to better align with the teaching assistant’s politics and ensure a good grade.

Given these feelings of censorship, along with heated protests and disinvitations of far-right or controversial speakers across the nation, Guenther said she appreciated the administration’s policy.

“I think the reaction was warranted,” Guenther said. “The campus climate is a lot different than the state and national government… conservatives don’t feel they can speak their mind without getting backlash.”

But de la Cruz pointed to fundamental differences in their feelings of injustice and the consequences they risk for speaking out about issues in the classrooms or at speeches. Compared to three branches of government, the governor, the state lawmakers and the board of regents, he said, “Someone on this campus who is considered a liberal teacher does not hold as much power.”

In the midst of this debate, the University of Wisconsin’s policy has also turned campus security into the arbiters of free speech, according to Capt. Brent Plisch, who was the incident commander for Shapiro’s event for campus police and now works on research. The protocol was to collaborate with campus community groups and administrators, who would give the first two warnings, the second one with the message that if they do not leave, police will intercede.

Applying the new policy to campus protest means that police with no First Amendment training are deciding who to shut down and when. Plisch said the lines aren’t as clear as someone “running a stop light or speeding.”

On the day of Shapiro’s event, as with all events, Plisch said police had to prioritize public safety by watching for signs of violence, which would necessitate an immediate response.

From fighting communism to college campuses

Shapiro’s speaking fee was paid for by the national nonprofit Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and the event was organized by the school’s chapter, which did not respond to several requests for comment.

YAF started as a grassroots movement by college buddies working at the conservative Human Events newspaper in D.C. with a passion to protest communism. During the 1960 Republican National Convention, one of them helped organize a rush of about 200 activists onto the convention floor, igniting the modern conservative party.

After sneaking in without credentials, they chanted and carried signs in support of Arizona’s U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, which compelled the moderator to cede Goldwater the microphone during a televised roll call. He gave a speech that catapulted his national profile.

“That brought out hardcore people across the country,” said then-organizer David Franke, who would later peel away from YAF and identify as a libertarian. “It was a major step up in terms of actual numbers and the organization of YAF.”

In 1964, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for president. Photo by Cliff/Creative Commons

In 1964, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for president. Photo by Cliff/Creative Commons

By 2016, YAF had net assets of $64 million and paid Shapiro, who edits the conservative website the Daily Wire, $105,531 that year, part of $8.7 million it spent on maintaining campus chapters with lectures, speeches and conferences. Shapiro, who is often mistaken for a white nationalist even though he is Jewish, charges $15,000 plus accommodations. Other YAF speakers who make headlines include polemicists Ann Coulter and Robert Spencer.

“We do the job universities fail to do: bringing ideological diversity to campus,” YAF spokesperson Spencer Brown wrote in an email to NewsHour Weekend.

Though McLeod, the journalism professor, said instead of fostering meaningful discourse, which policymakers say they’re trying to engage, these events more often push students even further apart. Despite what it looks like in the news, he said, students are otherwise talking without a police presence, name-calling or over-politicization, including inside his own classroom.

“Of course [these clashes] are newsworthy but in the process, I feel like by drawing attention to these things, it fuels the fire,” McLeod said. “Often times [public figures] cite incidences as sort of proof of the necessity for needing these laws, when these are really kind of the exceptions.”

Neutral or dangerous?

Riches described the bill as punishing protesters who “shout the person down or you physically accost the person.”

But the words he used are not in the white paper or the school policy, a crucial distinction that SPLC says sets a “dangerous precedent,” enabling people on the far right to squelch protesters.

“The way that it’s worded, it’s completely open to interpretation,” said SPLC’s Outreach Director Lecia Brooks. “It could be viewed as disruptive to stand in silent protests with signs … It wasn’t written to protect student protests.”

Democratic representatives in Wisconsin shared the same fears during AB 299’s introduction. Recalling when a woman was arrested for giggling during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing, one asked if a laugh could be interpreted as a punishable disruption.

Kremer said, “Does it materially and substantially disrupt a speech? That’s going to be up to the discipline process.”

University of Chicago Law School Assistant Professor Genevieve Lakier described her view — that the U.S. Supreme Court should consider how speech of the powerful affects the less-powerful — as “unorthodox,” especially under Chief Justice John Roberts’s lead.

One of the most evident examples, Lakier said, was the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. It essentially established that money is a form of speech and that corporations and nonprofits can spend however much they want in political contributions. Rob Robinson, the longstanding president of YAF, who made $866,633 in 2016, is also a director of Citizens United, a nonprofit that espouses conservative values.

Fresh from YAF’s Ronald Reagan Ranch — a program and sanctuary for young conservatives in Santa Barbara at the cost of $3.9 million in 2016 and boasts visits from Sessions and Walker — UW-Madison’s chapter chair Abigail Streu on April 26 introduced YAF’s last speaker of the school year.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan ride horses on their Santa Barbara Ranch, known as Rancho del Cielo, in this file photo taken during Reagan's presidency. Photo by Reuters

Ronald and Nancy Reagan ride horses on their Santa Barbara Ranch, known as Rancho del Cielo, in this file photo taken during Reagan’s presidency. Photo by Reuters

“We ask that you respect our right to bring speakers to this campus. If you have a comment or concern, hold it. Please, no waving signs in the air. Please, no shouting. Please, no storming the stage,” Streu told the audience. “When you’re done asking the question, we ask that you please go around and don’t cross the front, so you don’t obstruct our speaker.”

Then she introduced conservative radio host Dennis Prager.

Kelly Ward — who was one of the organizers of the Shapiro protest — was not there, but watched the livestream and interpreted Streu’s introduction as “trying to get to the strictest interpretation of the regents’ policy as possible.” With graduation weeks away, Ward said some students from her various activist groups and communities were too nervous about showing up and jeopardizing their diplomas.

After Streu finished her introduction, a room of about 300 students gave a standing ovation as Prager walked to the podium. He opened with a joke, likening himself to a dictator of the Soviet Union, which got a laugh.

“Who didn’t stand?” Prager said. “That comes from my background studying Stalin.”

He talked for almost an hour, repeating several controversial ideas. He said Black Lives Matter is a hate group. He reminded people of a column he wrote 10 years ago, which argues that regardless of their moods, women should still have sex with their husbands, because a faithful man “already engages in daily heroic self-control.”

When Streu opened up the floor to questions, she gave priority to any dissenting opinions, as is the case with YAF speaking events.

Five men asked questions. None of them impugned. And nobody interrupted.