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Wisconsin Pushes University Free Speech Bill


Now it's time for Words You'll Hear, that's where we dig into stories in the news by parsing a word or two. We have two words this week - free speech. It's a topic that's come up at a number of universities across the country this past year after protests disrupted a number of speakers whose views protesters considered offensive. Last week, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill imposing some serious sanctions such as suspension or expulsion for students who engage in, quote, "violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free speech of others," unquote.

This bill is called the Campus Free Speech Act. It's headed over to the state Senate. And Republican Governor Scott Walker says he's a supporter. Jesse Kremer is the lead sponsor of this bill. He's a Republican who represents Wisconsin's 59th District, which is a little north of Milwaukee. He's at home for the weekend. And he was nice enough to step outside to talk with us for a few minutes. Representative Kremer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JESSE KREMER: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So on the one hand, I'm sure there are people who would say that this is just common sense. People who are invited to the university to speak ought to be able to speak. On the other hand, as a conservative, I thought that the governing principle is that he who governs best governs least. So the question is, why does this need to be legislated?

KREMER: Right.

MARTIN: Why isn't it - isn't - the university's disciplinary procedures, why aren't they sufficient?

KREMER: Right. So I do not want to micromanage our university system. But one role of government is to ensure that people's constitutional rights are protected, and that's what we're doing here. We're providing a basic framework that protects the constitutional rights of everyone on the campus. Just because you're a college student doesn't mean some of those rights kind of go away a little bit or a lot a bit, you know?

So what we're doing here is we're saying straight out that there are going to be penalties for people who are found guilty of stomping on someone's First Amendment rights. And those penalties are a graduated three-tier system that eventually could get you to being expelled from the university.

MARTIN: What I think the argument is is that protests may not be a fundamental right, but it is fundamental to the American experience...

KREMER: And it's still allowed.

MARTIN: ...And dating back to the Boston Tea Party. And there are those who would argue that by definition, protest is inconvenient and that it is a tool of people who feel that the conventional channels of discussion are not available to them or from which they are shut out. So what would you say to that, that that which is seen as inconvenient and wrong and rude today often in the light of history is seen in a very different light? And so what would you say to that?

KREMER: You're allowed to protest. And we even discuss that right in the bill, right in the legislation. We make it very clear. We reaffirm what you are allowed to do. You can be in the back of the room with your signs. You can be outside chanting away. You just can't take away that individual's right to get their point across. There are clear unconstitutional things that are not allowed to be said.

I mean, true threats are not allowed. Quid pro quo sexual harassment's not allowed. Things like this that the Supreme Court's already ruled on said this is not protected under the First Amendment. But everything else, that psychically hateful speech again, that very subjective speech is allowed within our nation and should especially be allowed within our college system and unfortunately, it's not right now. It's not being protected. We may not like it. We may be offended by it. We may be disgusted by it, but it needs to be protected.

MARTIN: That is Wisconsin State Representative Jesse Kremer. He's the lead sponsor of the Campus Free Speech Act, which as we said has passed the assembly and is headed to the Wisconsin state Senate. Representative Kremer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KREMER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.