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Assembly University Committee Holds Hearing to Discuss Campus Free Speech

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by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner

The Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities held a more than four hour meeting on Thursday in an attempt to find ways the Legislature can facilitate free expression on the state’s public university campuses. 

At the hearing, a national expert, a former UW-La Crosse professor and three conservative UW-Madison students testified on the issue, which Republicans in Wisconsin have regularly complained about, citing high profile incidents in which controversial speakers invited to campuses by conservative student groups have been met with protests by predominantly liberal student bodies. 

Earlier this year, the University of Wisconsin System released a survey of students at the 13 four-year campuses that found many of them self-censor to avoid making unpopular statements in classroom discussions. Yet a majority of the responding students, just 12.5% of the more than 80,000 students in the system, said they believe professors make an effort to encourage wide ranging classroom discussions. 

After hours of discussion, the three students detailed their own experiences with apparent stifling of conservative ideas on campus. 

Ali Beneker, a sophomore journalism student and secretary of UW-Madison’s chapter of the Young Americas Foundation, told the committee about her experience with the student group when it invited controversial anti-transgender activist Matt Walsh to give a lecture last fall. 

Beneker complained that the feelings of liberal students on campus were being coddled. 

“My peers couldn’t handle the fact that we were bringing a speaker with different views,” she said of Walsh, who recently said he’d rather die than have a child who identifies as trans. 

Dr. Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, the director of the Washington D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center’s campus free expression project, testified in the hearing that student groups should be allowed to invite whomever they want to speak, but that they’ll need to be prepared to answer questions about their decisions. 

“If a student group wants to bring in somebody who wants to say the Earth is flat, they’re gonna get lots of tough questions and are going to have to defend that,” Merill said. “But I don’t see why a student group couldn’t bring in somebody who said that.”

Lauren Edwards, a junior political science major, testified about her belief that sharing her conservative views in classroom discussions has harmed her grades. An intern for Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville), the committee’s chairman, Edwards said faculty and administrators often give lip service to the idea of intellectual diversity without actually fostering it in class.

“There’s a big difference between saying to a class that all viewpoints are encouraged, and that students should feel free to share their views versus acting on it,” she said. “I’ve been in far too many classes where professors claim that and then do not engage.”

Finally, Tripp Grebe, a senior political science and history major — whose father, former UW System Board of Regents Vice President Michael Grebe, was in attendance — discussed his experience with the Badger Herald, one of UW-Madison’s two student-run newspapers. Michael Grebe’s father, also named Michael, was the president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, a powerful national conservative foundation.

Grebe said that in the summer of 2020 he wrote a column about the racial justice protests that had been occurring across the state and country and made the argument that there were better reform options than cutting police budgets. He said that the leadership of the paper decided not to run the column because it was “too much of a hot take.” 

“I think that my university can do a lot better in fostering a healthier free speech culture on campus,” he said. “As a student who came to Madison with conservative ideas, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to hear different perspectives from members of the community who have more liberal or progressive ideas and opinions. In some cases, my conversation with them has changed my mind. In other cases, my mind hasn’t been changed, but I’ve gained a better understanding of an opposing viewpoint. And sometimes, hearing those views has helped reinforce my own existing views, but in a more thoughtful, reflective and intellectually honest way. I think that all students on campus should have the opportunity to be exposed to ideas and opinions that counter their own. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s happening enough on campus right now.”

This story was written by Henry Redman, a reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.