What is going on in Wisconsin?


Or, as Charles Pierce calls it, the wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch brothers formerly known as the state of Wisconsin. They’re arguing over a neutrality bill in their legislature that would require the University of Wisconsin system to be neutral on “controversies of the day”, whatever those are.

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 publically[sic] express a given view of social policy.

It’s weird. It’s kind of the reverse of the “teach the controversy” tactic creationists have taken in the past — now conservatives (this is a Republican bill) are demanding that criticisms be silenced, because they’re discovering that college campuses tend to get rather ferocious in those criticisms. It’s really about sheltering conservative positions from debate.

In an introduction to the legislation on its website, the Goldwater Institute paints the recent flurry of protests against conservative speakers on college campuses as a clear and present danger to democracy.

“As both a deeply held commitment and a living tradition, freedom of speech is dying on our college campuses, and is increasingly imperiled in society at large,” it reads.

The spread of campus free speech legislation across the country will open a national debate that will influence the broader culture, it predicts.

As evidence of the peril in Wisconsin, lawmakers supporting the bill pointed repeatedly to the November 2016 appearance of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at UW-Madison. Students opposed to Shapiro’s mocking of a push for “safe spaces” on campus interrupted his talk, shouting him down for about 20 minutes. Police then escorted protesters out and Shapiro resumed his talk.

Vos, who has complained about the dearth of conservative guest speakers on UW campuses, said that without a law requiring the university to remain neutral, chancellors can block speakers whose views they don’t see as legitimate.

Wait. So Shapiro got to speak, but because many students used their right to speak freely to vocally oppose him, Republican congressmen want to shut down the students’ free speech in the name of free speech. Got it.

A few obvious concerns have been raised. Here’s one:

Rep. Terese Berceau, a Madison Democrat, was quizzing Rep. Jesse Kremer, her Republican colleague from Kewaskum, at a hearing for his proposed Campus Free Speech Act before the state Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities recently.

Berceau wondered what would happen under the bill — which requires University of Wisconsin System institutions to be neutral on “controversies of the day” — if a student in a geology class argued the Biblical theory that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

“Is it okay for the professor to tell them they’re wrong?” Berceau asked during the lengthy session on May 11.

The earth is 6,000 years old, Kremer offered. That’s a fact.

Who gets to decide what is controversial? The age of the earth is actually not a controversial fact at all, and no, it’s far older than 6,000 years. Does this bill demand that the geologists and biologists and physicists on the UW campuses are not allowed to disagree with Kremer? That the students aren’t allowed to argue with their professors? I’m also not sure how this is going to work. Is the UW going to have to hire political officers to monitor and police speech on campus, to be sure that no faculty representative expresses an opinion not approved by the Koch brothers? Oh. Actually, this is in the bill.

Yet Kremer immediately speculated that students who felt intimidated from expressing their opinions in class could bring their complaints to the Council on Free Expression, an oversight board created in the bill. So the law could potentially cover things that happen in the classroom, he suggested.

This doesn’t sound like any kind of free speech as I understand it. I see the Republicans retain their superpower of hyper-ironic naming: the Council on Free Expression is going to make sure your professors don’t say anything a conservative might disagree with!

And what about genuinely controversial issues?

“The bill gags the university,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the advocacy group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. In his argument, Rothschild referenced political controversy over stem cell research, something UW-Madison lobbied vigorously to protect from prohibitive legislation in 2015.

“So the university stem cell researchers, and the deans of the departments where they work, would not be allowed to take a position on the importance of stem cell research to cure diseases?” Rothschild asked. Would the chancellor be prohibited from weighing in on such issues as student debt or whether higher education should be free of charge, he queried in his written testimony.

“You are saying that UW institutions should remain neutral on the question of Darwin and natural selection versus creationism,” Rothschild said. “This is ludicrous and hidebound.”

Or how about this “controversy”?

Probably the biggest debate is global warming, Vos said. A lot of people think it’s settled science and an awful lot of people think it isn’t. I think both sides should be brought to campus and let students decide.

Here we go again. “Both sides”. Sometimes the two sides are “truth” and “lies”. I think it’s part of a university’s mission to always favor “truth”.

For instance, if a speaker shows up to say The earth is 6,000 years old. That’s a fact., I think it’s perfectly fair for a thousand students to show up and shout him down and tell him that he’s an idiot who shouldn’t be holding public office. But I guess Representative Kremer just wants to legislate a safe space for himself.

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    “an awful lot of people think it isn’t”.

    Almost right, just needs a little tweak in the word order. “lot of awful people” is the one you’re looking for.

  2. numerobis says

    Someone should let the republicans know that 1984 is not intended as an instruction manual.

  3. wcorvi says

    This reminds me of the Kansas lady school board member, who fought for six months to get a requirement that schools give equal time to creationism, to teach the controversy, to let the students decide what’s right. After this passed, but before it coud be implemented, she realized that students would be confused to hear two opposing ‘theories’, so the schools should be forbidden to teach the controversy, to only teach biblical geology.

  4. rhebel says

    As a science educator in WI, I am counting down the years (less than 10!) until I can retire (at the minimum age) and get out of this festering wound on the face of the Midwest that was once considered progressive (Our state motto is Forward, but apparently that, like so much else in today’s climate means what was once its opposite).

  5. Siobhan says

    Wait. So Shapiro got to speak, but because many students used their right to speak freely to vocally oppose him, Republican congressmen want to shut down the students’ free speech in the name of free speech. Got it.

    And the centrist liberals are biting it hook, line, and sinker.

  6. lumipuna says

    Berceau wondered what would happen under the bill — which requires University of Wisconsin System institutions to be neutral on “controversies of the day” — if a student in a geology class argued the Biblical theory that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

    Wouldn’t that be a controversy of the day-age?

  7. Hairhead, Still Learning at 59 says

    There’s nothing “wrong” with these people.

    They know what they want: complete and utter subservience, compliance, and obedience. A world without controversy or argument. A world where their opponents will be denied respect, speech, votes, medical care, and food.

    And they don’t care what they have to do to get it. So if they have to use the words “Free Speech”, or “Liberty” or “Democracy”, or “Motherhood”, they are not actually using words to create meaning or dialogue — the words are only tools achieve what they want. There is no thought involved on their part, and therefore no cognitive dissonance.

    The time is past for argument, logic, or appeals to conscience. The only thing they understand or will recognize is complete, intransigent, immediate, and unyielding resistance. Absent those things, they will take away EVERYTHING you have; to them, you are, as Eric Trump puts it, “Not even people.”

  8. says

    Who gets to decide what is controversial?

    The Ministry of Truth, of course. The Director of the Ministry of Truth has always been Kellyanne Conway.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 9 Anchor
    The Inquisition
    That’s unfair. The Roman Inquisition was scrupulously fair.
    A “Council on Free Expression” sound more like a US military tribunal.

  10. anchor says

    So Kremer asserts the Earth is 6000 years old, aye?

    He’s off by a factor of 757,167. (The Earth’s age is given by many lines of evidence to be 4.54 billion years old ± about 1%).

    That’s like insisting a person of 40 years of age is 27 minutes and 47 seconds old.

    Or that the average distance to the Moon is ‘really’ 3/10 of a mile, or about 1700 feet, which is about a thousand feet short of the world’s tallest building.

    The only thing that is harder to imagine than anyone believing anything so colossally wrong is the colossal stupidity required to arrive at it – the ‘effort’ expended in consulting a medieval ‘interpretation’ of a quaint ancient text describing lots of begattings.

    That is, evidently, the ‘compelling evidence’ to creationists.

  11. anchor says

    #10: “Scrupulously fair”? Tell that to Galileo or Giordano Bruno, among many others

  12. jamesramsey says

    I have a small suggestion. Change the name from “Council on Free Expression” to “Ministry of Free Expression”.

    That will fit in nicely with the “Ministry of Truth”, “Ministry of Love”, and “Ministry of Peace”.

  13. naturalcynic says

    In the spirit of this proposal, there should be an amendment to give those who are monitoring speech the appellation of “Commissar”.

  14. blf says

    An important question for the Council on Free Expression to resolve: What are the dimensions of the largest wheel of Edam Cheese that can be swallowed whole?

    The mildly deranged penguin (who is real, that is a fact!) insists anything smaller than Amsterdam does not need to be bitten in half first. Rather surprisingly, there are some who object on the spurious grounds not all Edam wheels are of sufficient size to merit biting in half. This has caused a great gashing of teeth, resulting in tooth marks in Edam Cheeses all over the world. It needs an urgent resolution, and then — based on previous Cheese-swallowing controversies — a huge street party / cheese-eating festival, so everyone can become familiar with the ruling… and ignore it.

  15. rietpluim says

    Some people have no idea what neutrality means.

    The scientific position is the neutral position. Science goes where the evidence leads, no matter the outcome. The creationists, antivaxxers, quacks, and climate change deniers don’t want government and education to be neutral, they want their prejudices to remain unchallenged.

    (I am aware that scientists are people with prejudices, biases and all, but the fact that we’re aware of that is just another plus: science is an attempt to overcome those biases. The religious aren’t even trying.)

  16. Andrew Dalke says

    There’s an ongoing controversy about “student-athletes”, and about the view that a university should even have sports scholarships and college sports. Yet somehow I don’t think the supporters of this legislation want the University of Wisconsin-Madison to be officially neutral about Badgers football.

  17. says

    In an introduction to the legislation on its website, the Goldwater Institute paints the recent flurry of protests against conservative speakers on college campuses as a clear and present danger to democracy.

    I’m going to take a wild guess here and posit that the Goldwater Institute has no problem with conservative colleges like Liberty [sic] University, where the students literally have no free speech rights at all, they cannot invite their own speakers, hold protests without permission of the administration, are forced to attend talks given by the speakers the administration invites, and can be expelled simply for having the wrong beliefs.

    I’m not sure how they expect us to take them seriously when their own institutions are so conspicuously hostile to free expression.

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