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UW regents approve free speech resolution

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin System leaders approved a resolution re-affirming their commitment to free speech Friday, as a bill that would punish students who disrupt campus speakers works its way through the Legislature.

Regent Vice President Drew Petersen called the resolution, adopted in a unanimous voice vote, “a guidepost” for campuses to “honor opposing views and to promote a civil discourse environment.”

The resolution does not include penalties, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. But the resolution states that regents and system officials will be committed to free speech as they review policies to ensure every campus offers an environment for civil discussions.

“Without civility, it is virtually impossible for the university to pursue its mission: The pursuit of truth,” UW System President Ray Cross said.

The Republican bill would require the Board of Regents to suspend or expel students if they receive complaints about the students’ conduct during a speech or presentation. The board also would have to adopt a policy calling for system schools to remain neutral on public controversies. Democrats have decried the bill, warning it would chill free speech.

Some conservatives are pushing nationally to crack down on disruptions they say quash free speech on liberal college campuses. Students counter that free expression sparks hate speech.

In Wisconsin, the Assembly bill passed on a 61-36 party line vote, with no Democrats in favor. The bill would require UW campuses to create a process for investigating complaints and disciplining students whose protests “materially and substantially disrupt” the speech of others.

The state Senate has not committed to a timeline for taking up the bill. Republican Gov. Scott Walker has said he is receptive to the idea.

Several regents recalled their own college experiences at Friday’s meeting.

Regent Tracey Klein, who received her bachelor’s degree in political science from UW-Madison in 1980, said the resolution was consistent with the mission to “follow the truth wherever it leads.”

The regents passed a similar resolution in December 2015.

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