The Wisconsin legislature took a huge step towards advancing free speech on campuses last week when its Committee on Colleges and Universities voted to advance a bill proposed by Speaker Robin Vos and Representative Jesse Kremer on May 30th. The Committee passed it on a party-line vote, with Representatives David Murphy, Travis Tranel, Rob Summerfield, Warren Petryk, Joan Ballweg, Scott Krug, Rob Stafsholt joining Representative Kremer in advancing it.
Speaker Vos is likely to bring it before the full assembly in the coming weeks.
Bills like this are being debated in legislatures across the country, with states including Illinois, Tennessee, Colorado and Arizona considering their own versions.
I’m particularly excited about the Wisconsin version, because Speaker Vos’s office contacted me to ask me to testify about the free speech conference that we held at the University of Chicago, as well as the work that we’ve done since then with Students for Free Expression, that we launched after the conference.
This was a new experience for me, and I had very little idea what to expect. One of the main lessons I learned was to not stay up writing testimony the night before.
During the hearing itself, the legislators constantly referenced the same three documents: Yale’s Woodward Report, and UChicago’s Kalven and Stone Reports. It was disheartening to see that so few schools were referenced in terms of having positive free speech policies, and even sadder for one to be Yale, which has more or forgets its Woodward Report at times, to be the only one mentioned other than UChicago.
The University of Wisconsin itself has a long history in support of free speech, which was also discussed throughout the hearing.
I’m looking forward to see further steps that Wisconsin will take to continue to protect free speech. In the weeks since this hearing, Speaker Vos has already taken steps to create a center to “ensure we have diversity of thought” on campuses. Liberal groups were unpleased, with One Wisconsin Now laughably calling it an “Institute for GOP Safe Spaces.”
Keep your eyes on Wisconsin; big things are happening there.
With all that said, here is the text of my testimony, and you can watch it here, starting at 4:45:30!
Thank you all for inviting me to speak before you today; this is truly a great honor.
My name is Matthew Foldi, and I am a junior at the University of Chicago.
Before I go any further, in advance of Mother’s Day, I would like to recognize my grandmother, Sharon Glick who is in the audience today. She is also an alum of the University of Chicago, having received her MBA there.
My remarks today are my own and are not affiliated with the University of Chicago.
Speaker Robin Vos is entirely correct in saying that “all across the nation and here at home, we’ve seen [protesters] trying to silence different viewpoints. We need more speech, not less; it’s time to put in appropriate measures to ensure all speech is protected at our universities.”
This was not always the case. Students were once some of the staunchest defenders of free speech, and the students at the University of Wisconsin were no exception.
It seems fitting that we are discussing this issue today – just a few blocks from the University of Wisconsin’s campus. In 1894, the school gave us the theory of “sifting and winnowing,” which reaffirmed the right of academic free speech.
This theory states that “in all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
Throughout its history, the University of Chicago has had a long and distinguished history of honoring the role of free expression as part of its academic philosophy.
In the 1930s, the Communist Party’s presidential candidate spoke at the University of Chicago, causing quite a stir and pleas for the University to cancel his address. Robert Maynard Hutchins–the president of the University of Chicago at the time–unequivocally stated that “our students … should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself,” and that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.”
Free speech has been a hallmark of US higher education, allowing different viewpoints to be expressed as part of the Socratic method of debate. Civilized debate where we do not demonize speakers – even if we adamantly disagree with their positions is a hallmark of democracy.
Unfortunately, it is clear that the level of intolerance on college campuses in the United State is growing at an alarming rate, with speakers from Congressmen to CIA Directors to columnists having been shut down in the past year alone on campuses from coast to coast, and colleges such as DePaul University are as willing to suppress the speech of their College Republicans as of their College Socialists.
Last year I realized that despite the path-setting policies of the University of Chicago, there was a fundamental disconnect between our policies and some of the students on campus, which is part of the reason I am thrilled to see the inclusion of free speech sessions during Orientation Week as a component of this bill.
Last year, a Palestinian human rights activist speaking at the University of Chicago had his life threatened because he refused to blame Israel for all of the region’s woes, and students shut down an Israeli Independence Day celebration run by their fellow students.
In response to these events, I proposed a simple resolution to our Student Government, asking them to condemn these protests, and had almost 50 professors from our College to Law School to Medical School and beyond sign on in support, and yet our Student Government refused to act, and tabled it indefinitely.
Despite our Student Government’s inaction, the University of Chicago continued its leadership on an institutional level on this topic this past academic year with the letter that Dean Jay Ellison sent to our incoming Class of 2020, which states that the University of Chicago does not mandate trigger warnings in classrooms, does “not cancel invited speakers because the topics might prove controversial, and [does] not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
The immediate aftermath of this letter showed what a difference clear leadership makes: a few days after Dean Ellison’s letter was sent, Brown University’s president took to the pages of the Washington Post to declare her school a “safe space for freedom of expression” and American University reminded its students of its opposition to mandated trigger warnings.
If this Bill is passed, we can look for other states to follow Wisconsin’s lead in taking up similar pieces of legislation themselves. I will send this document to the Clerk to distribute to the Committee.
In that vein, a few months ago, I was asked to help put together a national conference on free expression at the University of Chicago. I am pleased to say that we had students of all political persuasions from across the country attend the event.
In the days since the conference, we launched Students for Free Expression, along with a Statement of Principles that echoes much of what is contained in this Bill. We’ve been thrilled to see hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni, representing every ideology imaginable from schools around the world sign on in just a few days to support this Statement of Principles.
The support we’ve seen from people of differing backgrounds underscores the fact that this is truly a nonpartisan issue. I will send this document to the Clerk to distribute to the Committee.
The First Amendment is the first in the Bill of Rights for a reason. We’ve seen throughout history that it won’t defend itself, and I am excited to see the work of this Committee in ensuring that Wisconsin is one of the leaders in protecting free expression on campuses throughout the state.
I can only hope that more states look here for guidance as they deliberate their own policies on this critically important topic.
Thank you again for the opportunity to speak before you today, and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.