Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
University of Maryland students should be wary of the new push to restrict free speech on college campuses. On Oct. 6, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents announced its plan to write rules that limit student behavior deemed "violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene [or] unreasonably loud." The rules are in part designed to punish students who disrupt speeches on campus. Students and employees could face suspension, expulsion or firing for violating these rules, which will not take effect until the board specifies its language and the state legislature approves them.
While the stated motivation behind this new policy is to promote free speech, in practice, it would do the opposite. A ban on "indecent," "boisterous," "obscene" or "unreasonably loud" behavior is too gray to be OK. That gray area is where freedom of speech will eventually be abused, where freedom of speech will be second priority to the real thing these rules are trying to protect: controversial speakers.
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Speakers have a right to make controversial statements, and that right is itself protected under the First Amendment. Nobody is trying to take that away from campus speakers, least of all protesters who engage in free expression themselves. Instead, they are merely doing what the discontent in America do: protest.
While deliberating the Wisconsin policy, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said, "Campuses across the country are under attack as intolerance and physical aggression have replaced healthy debate and a free marketplace of ideas." This type of logic is faulty at best and utterly detrimental to the sanctity of free speech at worst.
By conflating dissenting protest with outright aggression and violence, Vos has painted all protesters with a broad brush. Sometimes protests go too far, such as the violent incidents at the University of California, Berkeley during the past year, but most do not. What's really under attack aren't campuses themselves, as Vos alleges, but the institution of free speech, which he mistakenly believes can only be protected by careful regulation.
Violence is never OK, and I certainly don't support violent protest on any campus, least of all my own. But by using broad terms like "indecent" or "boisterous" to describe unwanted forms of protest, the University of Wisconsin System is leaving too much to be interpreted. They are taking it upon themselves not only to persecute violence but to persecute any form of protest they disapprove of. By regulating protest that merely annoys or bothers them, system officials are using discretion they have no right to.
And while certain practices must be heavily regulated, freedom of speech is not such a practice. It should not now, nor ever, be regulated in the haphazard, poorly considered manner the University of Wisconsin System is adopting. Attempting to write rules curtailing protected speech in the name of protecting "a free marketplace of ideas" is a bastardization of free expression itself, and runs counter to the civic principles each of us learned in grade school. It's appalling that those running an entire university system could so easily cast aside a core tenet of American freedom.
What makes the whole thing worse, from my position in College Park, is that Wisconsin, Madison, isn't much different than its Big Ten colleague, the University of Maryland. This university is susceptible to the same madness plaguing Wisconsin. We need to be constantly aware of those who would seek to strip us of our rights and our voices, lest we find ourselves in a similar position at this university.
Caitlin McCann is a sophomore communication major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.