'Sifting and Winnowing' plaque

A plaque on the front of Bascom Hall at UW-Madison celebrates the Wisconsin Idea.

Republicans in the Wisconsin state Legislature want us to believe there is a freedom-of-speech crisis on Wisconsin campuses.

According to their elaborate fantasy, the University of Wisconsin System is an authoritarian hellscape where woke mobs silence any form of dissent from the worldview of liberal professors and politically correct administrators.

There’s just one problem with the dystopian fantasy that our Republican friends are perpetuating: It neglects the reality on campuses across the state. Anyone who pays attention to the discourse at the state’s colleges and universities knows that differences of opinions are frequently aired. Students and faculty members of varying political and ideological stripes are heard on a wide range of issues. And event planners welcome right-wing commentators such as Matt Walsh, who appeared on the UW-Madison campus last fall.

Before the controversial author of books such as "The Unholy Trinity: Blocking the Left's Assault on Life, Marriage and Gender" arrived on campus, there were spirited protests by students who objected to the speaker’s antitrans views. There were also some graffiti incidents that had to be investigated by UW Police. But Walsh wasn’t prevented from screening his film “What is a Woman?” He delivered extended remarks and participated in a lengthy question-and-answer session before heading on to his next appearance on the lucrative campus lecture circuit.

More recently, the College Republicans of UW-Madison hosted right-wing Supreme Court candidate Daniel Kelly just before the spring election. Kelly was able to rant and rave to his heart’s content, as have other conservatives. Indeed, after the College Republicans hosted a joint appearance by Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels and attorney general candidate Eric Toney shortly before last fall’s election, College Republicans president Joe Krantz told the Daily Cardinal he was “thankful for the space to share ideas” with the candidates.

We’re not going to suggest that the discourse on campuses is as civil and welcoming as it should be — for students and faculty on the right or on the left. There’s plenty of work to be done to assure that sincere differences of opinion are aired, that robust debate is encouraged and that students feel free to speak up in and out of the classroom.

But it's overreach to suggest that “cancel culture” has silenced diverse viewpoints — or the freewheeling discussion of them — on the Madison campus or other campuses across a state where conservative speakers and candidates regularly appear, and where student groups are organized on a spectrum that ranges from libertarian to socialist.

Yet last week the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities held an informational hearing on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus at which Republican members of the committee echoed their usual complaints.

Unfortunately for the perpetually offended Republicans, they revealed themselves in the choices they made to structure the hearing as an invitation-only discussion among political allies rather than a serious conversation about circumstances on Wisconsin campuses.

The hearing on “how the lack of free speech and intellectual diversity affects the quality of (public) education” was closed to public comment, which got the notice of Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, who represents the Eau Claire campus.

“Having speakers by invitation only for a free speech hearing says all you need to know about the committee’s intentions,” said the senator. “Students are the individuals most directly impacted by free speech rights at UW institutions. Hearing their voices should be a priority in addressing obstacles to free speech on campus.”

Decrying the Republican gambit of sweeping into one the largest of the state’s campuses and then closing the doors to its students, Smith said, “Students deserve a direct say when it comes to the issues that matter to them.”

The narrow focus of the hearing also concerned state Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, who serves as the ranking member on the Committee on Colleges and Universities.

Emerson expressed concerns about the neglect of “the voices of marginalized Wisconsinites who have a great deal to contribute to our understanding of censorship, discrimination, and freedom of speech and expression.”

“As the Committee on Colleges and Universities continues to discuss issues of intellectual diversity and freedom of speech and expression on college campuses throughout Wisconsin, I hope we in the Legislature have the courage to commit to and listen to the voices of those with whom we disagree. We need to lead by example,” explained Emerson, who argued, “If we are going to have a real discussion about this issue, we need to include the Student Senate, current professors, and staff. Wisconsin has an incredible shared governance model and that needs to be reflected in these hearings."

Unlike the Republicans who ran the show in Eau Claire, Smith and Emerson take free speech issues seriously. They recognize the importance of open and honest discussion about whether Wisconsin campuses respect a wide range of views and encourage robust debate. They also recognize the political games that the Republicans are playing.

“I’ve heard some of my GOP colleagues complain that campuses are too far left," said Emerson. "But they only have themselves to blame for losing ground on college campuses. It’s not indoctrination but the Republican agenda that turns off many young people. Students want clean water, access to reproductive health care and a learning environment free from gun violence. The Republican Party is not supplying that for students.”

The reality is that the Republican members of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities are not worried about free speech on campuses. What worries these Republicans is the fact that, when students are given the freedom to engage in “that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” those students tend to reject their party’s reactionary agenda.

The Republicans seem to think they can change their electoral circumstance by whining about “indoctrination” on campuses. They’d do better to open up their hearings and start listening to what college students have to say. The legislators might learn something.

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