Bill in Iowa Legislature takes on campus free speech

Measure comes as University of Iowa being sued by Christian group

After winning a temporary injunction against the University of Iowa, members of Business Leaders in Christ, including President Jake Estell, left, set up their display Jan. 24 during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
After winning a temporary injunction against the University of Iowa, members of Business Leaders in Christ, including President Jake Estell, left, set up their display Jan. 24 during the UI Student Organization Fair at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — On the heels of a high-profile lawsuit pitting a Christian student group against the University of Iowa, the Republican chair of Iowa’s Senate Education Committee has proposed a bill detailing how public universities and community colleges should handle free-speech issues.

The nine-page bill — which includes stipulations on belief-based student groups and university liability for violating student rights — seems a reaction, in part, to accusations of discrimination from the UI student group Business Leaders in Christ.

That group, founded in 2014 in the Tippie College of Business, late last year sued the university for discrimination and First Amendment violations. UI administrators had deregistered the organization’s status as a student group for barring a gay member from becoming a leader.

The case has garnered attention as part of the national debate — including a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court — over the juxtaposition of free expression and gay rights.

The student group — which goes by BLinC — argues that the UI treated it differently than other groups that also require members and leaders to align with their beliefs. BLinC has cited a Muslim group, feminist union and the Korean American Student Association as being treated differently.

The university counters that BLinC violated the UI’s human rights policy requiring student organizations be open to anyone, regardless of race, creed, color, religion, national origin, age, sex or gender identity.

However, UI attorney George Carroll in January told U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose that enforcement is complaint-driven, and the university hadn’t received other complaints involving other groups.

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Rose allowed BLinC three months more of UI student-group benefits, like access to funds and campus space, while the case continues.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, would bar Iowa’s public universities from denying benefits to belief-based student groups because of their beliefs or expression of those beliefs.

Lawmakers last week advanced the proposal to the Senate Education Committee, where it could come up for debate this week, according to Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based religious-freedom and First Amendment firm representing BLinC, voiced support for the proposed measure.

“We support any effort to ensure that all student groups on University of Iowa campus are treated equally and that none are singled out for discrimination because of their religion,” said senior counsel Eric Baxter.

If made law, the bill would prohibit any public institution of higher education from withholding benefits from student groups that affirm or adhere to “sincerely held beliefs” and require of it members and leaders.

The bill lays out more broadly a role of public higher education.

“The primary function of an institution of higher education is the discovery, improvement, transmission, and dissemination of knowledge by means of research, teaching, discussion, and debate,” according to the bill. “It is not the proper role of the institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, including without limitation, ideas and opinions the individuals find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Those stipulations ring especially relevant as campuses across the country grapple with how to handle white supremacist-planned protests and speaking engagements.

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Iowa State University, for example, in December 2016 saw emotions flare when a student invited to campus Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial former writer for Breitbart News who had been banned from Twitter and branded a white nationalist.

ISU had planned to allow the visit, but it eventually was canceled after officials determined they needed more security that organizers would have to pay for.

The bill, if passed, would require universities and colleges to post online and submit to the governor annual reports of their efforts to comply.

The report would include details of incidents of free-speech disruption and “disciplinary action taken against members of the campus community determined to be responsible for the specific barrier.”

The bill also holds the institutions liable for violations by preventing them from claiming immunity under the Constitution’s 11th amendment.

Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman said the universities already have policies to protect free speech.

“Our public universities are places where all viewpoints should and can be heard and respected,” he said in an email. “This has been a long-standing core principal of institutions of higher learning, and the Board of Regents fully supports the free expression of ideas on our campuses.”

During subcommittee discussion of the bill last week, regents representative Keith Saunders said the bill would put the public universities in the “uncomfortable position of judging the sincerity of someone’s belief.”

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Saunders said the bill also greatly expands the definition of a public forum, limiting the campuses’ ability to restrict time, place or manner of speech. “So what that means is the lobby of our hospital now is a public forum,” he said. “Anyplace the public can go in the hospital suddenly becomes a public forum where we now could have protests.”

The same goes for classrooms, he said.

“We are bastions of free speech. We want a free exchange of ideas,” he said. “But we also need to conduct business.”

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