Government

Iowa lawmakers won't regulate campus free speech

Contentious bill dies, but university legal issues persist

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)
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If Iowa had legislation regulating how its Board of Regents handles free speech issues, maybe the University of Iowa and Iowa State University could have avoided recent costly legal battles that have attracted national attention, according to a lawmaker who proposed such regulations this session.

The contentious bill that Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said would have protected “ideas with which you radically disagree or even detest” seemed on track for passage this legislative session. After its introduction Feb. 19, a Senate Education Committee approved Senate Study Bill 3120 before the full Iowa Senate did so on Feb. 28.

Moving over to the House, the bill received support from a subcommittee, but — in the rush toward meeting a “funnel” deadline that whittles down the session’s massive pack of proposals — the House Education Committee didn’t bring it up for a vote.

Committee Chair Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, said he caucused on the bill but didn’t have enough Republican support to pass it.

That means the issue remains in the regents’ hands to regulate, according to Sinclair.

“I certainly would rather have seen the campus free speech bill pass for sure,” she said. “I think it’s always a good thing to have a standard in place so students know what’s expected of them and so that our regents know what is expected of them.”

“Frankly,” Sinclair added, “if we had rules in place, there wouldn’t be the lawsuits that exist.”

Both UI and ISU recently have faced legal action over their handling of campus free speech, a topic that’s gained widespread national attention as political divides have widened.

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ISU this year lost a legal battle to the tune of nearly $1 million after a federal judge found administrators violated the free-speech rights of a student organization advocating reformed marijuana laws.

ISU officials, according to court documents, granted approval of a T-shirt design for the group that incorporated ISU’s mascot and a marijuana symbol, but then rescinded approval and changed the rules following criticism from the public and state officials.

ISU also faced blowback after a student invited former Breitbart News writer and touted white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos to campus in December 2016. The university had planned to allow the visit, but the engagement eventually was canceled after officials hiked fees to cover additional security.

At the University of Iowa, administrators are facing a federal lawsuit from a Christian student organization — Business Leaders in Christ, or BLinC for short — alleging discrimination.

The school had deregistered the group for barring a gay member from serving as a leader, which the UI said was a violation of its human rights policy.

But BLinC argued the university is not equally enforcing that policy, as other student groups have similar requirements including a Muslim organization.

That case has attracted national attention as part of a swirling debate — which has reached the U.S. Supreme Court — over free expression and discrimination. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C., firm that has been on the front lines of the issue, is representing BLinC in the case.

Sinclair’s bill seemed to directly address some of the issues the universities have faced — but then go much deeper into campus protests and legal ramifications of university violations.

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In broad strokes, it required the Board of Regents to adopt policies defining the “proper function and role of the institutions of higher education, the freedoms to be afforded students, and the use of public areas of campus for public forums,” according to a legislative fiscal note.

It also prohibited public universities from denying student organization benefits and privileges “based on the viewpoint of a student organization or the expression of the viewpoint of a student organization by the student organization or its members.”

Sinclair told her peers in February the bill was not a response to the BLinC case and had been in the works since May.

Critics of the bill, including Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, and Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan, described it as a “dangerous, insidious, nefarious bill.”

The regents opposed it, arguing they already have free-speech policies and procedures on their respective campuses.

But Sinclair, in an impassioned speech before its Senate passage, urged her fellow lawmakers, “If you vote against this bill you are voting against our constitutional rights that are enshrined in our First Amendment.”

But after its failure to clear the funnel in March, Sinclair told The Gazette she doesn’t see the bill being resurrected — leaving the issue in the Board of Regents purview, at least for now.

“I think the regents are addressing that as a board, just particularly because they have a couple of issues going on right now,” she said.

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Sinclair credited the public universities with being “pretty good about allowing for free speech.” But, she noted, time will be the test.

“They’re just dealing with it on a systemwide basis,” she said. “As soon as we know the results of that, we’ll know whether or not they’ve been able to resolve it without the legislation.”

James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart of The Gazette contributed.

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