GOP senators pass campus free speech bill

Critics say the measure legalizes discrimination

The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A contentious bill its sponsor says aims to protect “ideas with which you radically disagree or even detest” on the state’s public university and college campuses won backing Wednesday from majority Republicans in the Iowa Senate.

The measure now goes to the Iowa House.

Senate Study Bill 3120 seeks to regulate how public universities and community colleges handle free-speech — a topic that’s gained widespread attention as political divides deepen nationally and incidents of racist and sexist vandalism and leafleting on campuses have spiked.

Opponents criticized the sweeping bill as a direct response to a federal lawsuit the University of Iowa is facing after it deregistered a faith-based student group for barring an openly gay member from leadership.

“I see this as a very dangerous, insidious, nefarious bill,” said Sen. David Johnson, an Ocheyedan independent.

The measure passed the Senate on a party-line vote, with all 29 Republicans in favor and 19 Democrats and Johnson opposed. One Democrat, Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, was excused from the vote.

The bill introduced by Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, would prevent public universities in Iowa from denying benefits and privileges to student groups because of their beliefs or expression of beliefs or their requirements that members and leaders hold similar beliefs.

The bill earlier passed out of committee after lawmakers amended it to make clear a public institution “may prohibit student organizations from discriminating against members or prospective members on the basis of any protected status.”

But before passage late Wednesday, the full Senate voted to remove that language.


“I have to tell you the amendment currently being offered is basically reneging on the deal,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, agreed, voicing “strong opposition.”

“We have, in essence, legalized discrimination, which I believe is a very dangerous and unfortunate thing to be doing tonight, at this hour,” he said about 8:30 p.m.

While the bill delves in detail about requirements for student groups and public forums, it more broadly articulates its vision of the role of public campuses.

“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,” it says.

Iowa’s regent system in recent years has seen multiple incidents of controversy over free speech, including when touted white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos planned a visit to Iowa State University in December 2016.

ISU had planned to allow his visit, but it was canceled after officials increased event fees to cover security costs.

Last semester on the UI campus, the student organization Business Leaders in Christ sued in federal court after the university found the group had discriminated against a gay member.

Sinclair rejected the notion her bill was a response to the case and instead said she began working on it last May.


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Johnson pressed her on whether the bill was really her idea at all. “You know this bill didn’t come from Iowa,” he said.

“This bill came from this senator,” Sinclair said. “I served on a task force that helped to draft these policies, and I brought it home because it makes sense for Iowa. I did that, senator.”

Sinclair said she serves on a task force with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit organization of conservative lawmakers and private sector representatives.

“We see college campuses, regent boards, we see them eroding those rights, we see speakers who are invited in not being allowed to come,” she said. “We see safe spaces being created where people are protected from ideas that offend them. This bill allows a free exchange of ideas that are not limited by emotions.”

To accusations Senate Republicans were legalizing discrimination on Iowa’s public universities, Sinclair dug in.

“All this bill does … is to codify and clarify existing constitutional rights,” she said.

The Board of Regents has voiced opposition to the proposal, arguing it already has policies protecting free speech.



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