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BPC’s Pfeffer Merrill Testifies Before Wisconsin State Assembly Committee About Free Speech and Academic Freedom

Washington, DC – Yesterday, Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, testified for a second time before the Wisconsin State Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities, at a hearing to assess Assembly Bills 551 and 553 in the committee’s efforts to address the erosion of academic freedom and free expression within the University of Wisconsin System. 

While there are many factors, the prime reason that speech is chilled is that a censorious minority of students, who are willing to shout down speakers and call out student peers on social media, has an outsized impact on campus culture,” said Pfeffer Merrill in her testimony. “Campus censors are a minority, but perhaps most students lack the skills and habits of mind to engage confidently with others whose views differ from their own, to engage in civil dialogue, and to be genuinely independent thinkers.” 

As BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force report, Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap, found, the chilling of campus speech is degrading higher education’s capacity to carry out its missions of research, teaching, and preparing the next generation for citizenship and civic leadership. 

To address these challenges, Pfeffer Merrill in her previous testimony in April, recommended a dual-track strategy of campus policies that (1) respond to incursions on freedom of expression and academic freedom, and (2) employ policies, programs, and curricula that build the skills and dispositions for open inquiry and discourse across difference. 

“I am pleased that Assembly Bills 551 and 553 reflect that dual-track strategy. HB 553 includes safeguards for free expression well established in case law and the academic freedom of instructors to research, teach, and express opinions as citizens on matters of public concern,” said Pfeffer Merrill. “Moreover, HB 553 mandates steps that support the development of skills and dispositions for dialogue across difference in the form of a biennial campus culture survey and annual instructional programs. HB 551 establishes important protections for freedom of speech and press for student journalists and their media advisors.” 

Read the Testimony 

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