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MADISON — Speech on Wisconsin’s university campuses is anything but free for students and professors from the right-of-center point of view — or anyone, really, who doesn’t agree with the edicts of the politically correct thought police.

A state Senate Committee informational hearing on Wednesday took testimony from some of the people living that reality in higher education every day.

“I chose this issue because protecting and fostering the free exchange of ideas is vital to the lifeblood of our universities,” said state Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), chairman of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges.

The hearing was held on the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus. Chancellor Dwight Watson told committee members why UW-Whitewater is a paragon of the Wisconsin Idea, underscored by its commitment to academic freedom. Katie Ignatowski, chief compliance officer for University of Wisconsin System, said the same about all of the state’s 13 universities spread across 26 campuses, noting the system’s rich history of protecting and defending the First Amendment.

You’ll forgive long-time Marquette University political science professor John McAdams for being a bit jaded about higher ed bureaucrats who are “very good at nominally implementing” academic freedom protections only to disregard them for the sake of political correctness.

McAdams ought to know. He had to take his case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He won — after being locked out of his classroom for several semesters. The court found Marquette was in breech of contract and wrongly suspended McAdams after he blogged about a liberal Marquette teacher who prohibited opposing views about same-sex marriage in her class. Marquette administrators were ordered to immediately reinstate the nationally renown professor.

At one point, Marquette President Michael Lovell demanded McAdams apologize before he would be allowed back in the classroom. McAdams, a critic and thorn in the side of the left-leaning Jesuit university’s administration, refused.

“Most university bureaucrats don’t know the history of forced confessions,” the professor said.

Committee member and free-speech-for-me-but-not-for-thee enthusiast Sen. Chris Larson said McAdams’ conservative opinions “bashing” transgender individuals, feminists and others show how speech is protected. The Milwaukee senator said McAdams eventually won his case, so what’s the problem?

“McAdams got justice but lost two years in the classroom to get it,” said University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh English Professor James “Duke” Pesta. He offered impassioned testimony on the assault he has experienced just for teaching the literature of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He told the committee he spent $40,000 and six months defending himself after a student in his class complained she was offended by the conservative subject matter. As Empower Wisconsin reported nearly a year ago, Pesta’s name also was dragged through the mud by the student newspaper, despite successfully defending himself from the complaint and the overzealous administration.

He was forced to defend himself again in another failed complaint from a student who cited dozens of things that offended her about Pesta’s Shakespeare class.

“I lost a semester of research dealing with all this,” Pesta said.

While lawmakers are looking at bills that would strengthen academic freedom protections on college campuses and punish those that try to shut down speech, Pesta said Wisconsin needs to enforce the laws it has. More than anything, he said, universities should be mandated to provide students and faculty routine training on free speech — something Wisconsin higher education institutions have failed to do.

Pesta said free speech training is no less important to the core mission of the university than racial and gender awareness.

“No one has bothered to teach them that their education is predicated on having to hear other views, making actual education increasingly impossible in the classroom,” the professor said.

Ryan Owens,  director of the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership and professor of political science at Wisconsin’s flagship public university, shared research on the the perils of free speech ignorance. Owens testified personally, not as a representative of either institution. While many teachers in the UW System are ardent supporters of free speech, Owens said, universities suffer from an “intellectual monopoly.” Right-of-center ideas are being shut out.

That has led to a concerning trend of students supporting tighter limits on speech. A recent report from the Center on Public Research and the University of Wisconsin Survey Center found:

  • Nearly 40% of students believe the government should restrict the speech of climate change deniers
  • Over 50% of students believe government should restrict the speech of racially insensitive people
  • 63% believe government should punish hate speech
  • Over 35% believe that public institutions should be allowed to revoke invitations to speakers who might offend someone
  • 53% believe that employers’ religious beliefs should give way when it comes to providing goods or services, like contraceptives or abortion coverage, that violate their religious beliefs.

Students are not alone in their ignorance.

Sen. John Erpenbach (D-West Point), a member of the Senate committee, said instances of Wisconsin’s left-wing universities targeting conservative speech are like voter fraud complaints — there’s “no evidence” of it.

The Republican members of the committee disagree.

“Of all places the freedom of the First Amendment should be championed on our college campuses,” Roth said.

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