A bill seeking to forbid the University of Wyoming — or any of the state’s community colleges — from disinviting controversial speakers is finding support among some faculty members at UW.
The Wyoming Higher Education Free Speech Protection Act would require the trustees at all eight state institutions of higher learning to report annually on their campuses’ free speech rights and issues and to adopt a free speech protection policy.
The mandatory policy would outline punishments for those who attempt to stifle speech, warn faculty to be “cautious in expressing personal views in the classroom” and forbid discrimination against any student organization.
Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Dubois, is one of the bill’s 10 co-sponsors.
“I don’t care if it’s a group of liberal or conservative students, they should allow freedom of speech on campuses,” he said. “If I was a student on campus and Black Lives Matter was on campus, I would like to hear what they have to say without having to deal with violent protest. And that’s what this bill is trying to get at.”
Faculty Association President and Associate Professor of History Renee Laegreid said the bill seems reasonable, setting out basic and well-established parameters for free speech.
“What it seems to do is stress that there should be free speech on campus,” she said. “And it encourages intellectual debate, which I think we’re supposed to be doing.”
Laegreid said she might personally find someone “extremely offensive,” but the way to combat that person’s ideas is with intellectual arguments, not violence or threats.
“That’s unacceptable behavior,” she said. “No one should be having mob violence against someone who’s speaking about something you disagree with. Use your heads. Argue intelligently and cogently instead of emotionally.”
Laegreid added other universities around the country have witnessed students attempt to shut down controversial speakers.
“Maybe this is something to hedge against that behavior,” she said. “There was a conservative speaker (Dennis Prager) on campus last semester and President (Laurie) Nichols did a great job. She said we have to let everyone speak and we need to have informed and intelligent debate about things we don’t like — but we can’t shut people down.”
Rep. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said he did not want what was happening at other universities to happen at UW.
“We can’t let what I call the ‘heckler’s veto’ win, because just the threat of a Berkeley can silence speech,” he said. “If they cancel an event because they’re afraid for security, you’ve effectively shut down free speech.”
“Berkeley” refers to an incident at University of California-Berkeley in which Milo Yiannopoulos was disinvited from speaking in the aftermath of violent, destructive protests.
When Prager’s visit to UW was announced in the fall, ASUW Director of Diversity Hunter McFarland sent an email to the president of the student group responsible for inviting him.
“I am scheduling a protest against your event,” the email reads. “If you continue you will have the entire campus against you. This will be another Milo situation.”
House Bill 137 comes just months after the Prager visit, but its language and message remind UW faculty of a separate, older incident, involving a controversial left-wing figure.
“(The bill) is kind of alleging that radical right-wing speakers coming onto campus have difficulty getting a slot, and I’m not aware of that ever happening,” Professor of Veterinary Science Donal O’Toole said. “The only time when we’ve ever really, truly had a problem was when Bill Ayers was invited onto campus.”
Ayers is a retired elementary education professor and self-professed radical. During the 1960s, he co-founded the communist revolutionary group Weather Underground, which bombed public buildings.
Citing threats, UW disinvited Ayers from speaking at the university in 2010 but later spoke on campus after a court ruled UW could not prohibit Ayers from speaking.
Professor of Political Science Gregg Cawley said House Bill 137, by making it impossible to disinvite speakers, could strengthen the university’s position in the face of future protests.
“When Bill Ayers was here, our administration at the time tried to take the stance that the university should be seen as a neutral venue,” Cawley said. “Strikes me as that’s pretty much what this bill is saying.”
He added the bill is probably needed at the university.
“Everybody believes in free speech,” Cawley said. “Everybody thinks they should have the right to say whatever they want, but basically everybody has this notion that people who have views they disagree with shouldn’t be allowed to speak.”
O’Toole, however, said the bill was unnecessary given the university has not, in recent memory, successfully disinvited any speakers, and did not cave to student pressure in the case of Prager.
“There isn’t an issue about folks coming on campus and there being a problem controlling individuals,” he said. “Personally, I think it’s our job to have not just vanilla speakers on campus saying popular truths, but also controversial speakers. That’s what gets the conversation going.”
O’Toole said he was more concerned with the provision that states faculty members will “endeavor not to introduce controversial matters bearing no relationship to the subject taught,” because it was unclear who would determine the relevance of topic or comment made in class.
“That’s the one thing I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s kind of squirrelly,’ because I could see it would be possible to create problems for someone very easily by using that and by taking something out of context,” he said.
Biteman said the provision was written with the idea that, for example, English teachers should not delve into “extreme political discourse.”
“If you’re doing things right, it shouldn’t affect you at all,” Biteman said.
O’Toole added faculty, the primary target of the bill, were not likely to be the people standing in the way of free speech.
“If there are to be ramifications for people about free speech, I’d really like it to see it also apply to the trustees and the administration and the university,” he said. “Because in many cases, the administration — upper administration — is going to be moved by donors and demands from the trustees.”