‘I am conservative. I would be crucified.’

Empower Wisconsin | Sept. 19, 2019

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — A significant number of college students live with self-imposed gag orders.

“Why would I get myself killed to say I’m a libertarian in a philosophy class,” a North Carolina State student wrote in a recent survey by the College Fix.

The conservative news site’s survey of 1,000 Republican and Republican-leaning college students found nearly three-quarters of them withheld their political views in class for fear their grades would suffer.

Seventy-three percent of students who identity as “strong Republican” reported that they had, while 71 percent of students who identify as “weak Republican” said yes.

Self-imposed silence is one thing. Wholesale stifling of speech is another.

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents in 2017 approved a speech protection policy following high-profile incidents of liberals attempting to disrupt and shut down conservatives and right-of-center speeches. But are the policies being followed? Not exactly, says one former regent and others who spoke to Empower Wisconsin

Silencing treatment

When the liberal temper-tantrums finally stopped at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison’s Sewell Social Science Building, free speech at the campus known for all manner of liberal ideas had taken a serious beating.

That November night in 2016, conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro’s very presence was enough to trigger the “tolerant left” into a paroxysm of disorderly conduct.

A group of protesters disrupted and effectively shut down Shapiro’s scheduled speech titled, “Dismantling Safe Spaces: Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings.”

As Townhall reported, campus police watched but did nothing to stop the interruptions. At one point, they looked on as the protesters stormed the stage and continued their chants. Shapiro was told by police that they were instructed not to stop the demonstrators, who made their intentions to disrupt clear on Facebook days before the speech.

The disorderly scene was a bridge too far for First Amendment defenders.

Still, it took nearly a year for the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, pressured by conservative lawmakers, to pass a policy aimed at ending such disruptions and organized campaigns to silence speech.

A ’Turning Point?’

The policy requires that those found responsible for substantially hindering freedom of expression be expelled from school, after three violations.

Former UW Regent Tim Higgins asserts Wisconsin’s public universities have failed to follow some key details of the policy.

Among other provisions, the policy requires each UW institution “shall include in orientation for freshman and transfer students information regarding freedom of expression consistent with this policy.” It also calls for all UW System campuses to bring their free-expression rules in line with the board’s document.

“As far as I can tell, it’s not being done any place,” said Higgins, an Appleton business owner.

A little over a year after Regents approved the policy, the conservative student group Turning Point USA was denied the right to become a recognized student organization at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point because some students felt targeted by some of Turning Point’s messages — like its “socialism sucks” meme. Campus student government rejected the group’s request, but the university, amid growing public criticism, overruled the decision.

An official from Wisconsin’s flagship university said UW-Madison has, since 2018, communicated to students about the policy through multiple channels.

“We’ve continued our efforts for the new class this fall,” spokesman John Lucas said in an email, noting the university sent to all students a link to an article summarizing the policy.

Higgins said too many university officials are simply going through the motions, paying lip service to truly free expression.

“I don’t doubt Madison’s campus and probably other campuses gave a nod in compliance with the policy, but I don’t think at this time we are seeing significant efforts in diversifying in the academic atmosphere on campus,” Higgins said.

In the dark

UW System schools are also supposed to annually inform employees of the policy.

Dr. Duke Pesta, associate professor of English at the University Wisconsin-Oshkosh, says that isn’t happening.

“I have in 10 years at this university never been notified of anything (regarding free speech on campus). I don’t think students know about it,” said Pesta, a vocal defender of unfettered freedom of expression on college campuses. “I’ve had serious conversations with my students about political intolerance on campus, and none has suggested to me there was ever a tip of the camp toward free speech and free expression.”

Ryan Christens, chairman of the UW-Madison College Republicans, said the group has not had problems openly expressing itself on campus, but he has heard from individual conservatives frustrated with liberal bias in classrooms.

Of course, there are other ways to chill speech in groupthink land. The College Fix’s poll found a large majority of right-of-center students are concerned that openly disagreeing with their educators will cost them academically, and socially.

“I am conservative. I would be crucified. I heard enough horror stories from friends and family to keep my mouth shut and avoid politics in class if at all possible,” a University of Louisville respondent said.

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