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IOWA CITY - Iowa's Board of Regents on Wednesday adopted a string of recommendations aimed at ensuring its public universities uphold free speech values - addressing concerns from Republican lawmakers, who've threatened this session to pass laws eliminating tenure and increasing government oversight if that doesn't happen.
'The Board of Regents and our universities absolutely support free speech and open dialogue on our campuses,” Board President Mike Richards said during the regents meeting. 'We must also be honest and recognize that there have been times when this expectation has not been met.
'In these cases, we have and will continue to act quickly to recognize what has occurred, take corrective action and educate those involved.”
Recommendations the board accepted Wednesday aimed to address free speech in the classroom; prevent punishment for viewpoint expression; and require annual free speech training for faculty, staff and students.
The board also is creating a 'permanent free speech committee” that will - among other things - take infringement complaints from across the campuses and review them, along with the board.
'Disagreeing on issues and having a respectful debate about those issues should happen on our university campuses,” Richards said. 'What should not happen is preventing another person or group's opinion from being expressed or threatening those opinions with possible repercussions.”
Although the board recently adopted a new free speech policy in response to legislation in 2019, the new committee, according to Regent David Barker, will 'consider policy changes to counter what we see as disturbing incidents and trends that threaten the freedom of expression and freedom of academic inquiry.”
Board Executive Director Mark Braun said regents in April will consider proposed amendments to its current free speech policy.
Incidents this academic year that sparked the swirl of legislative activity included an uproar over the University of Iowa College of Dentistry's handling of a White House executive order barring certain types of diversity training last fall.
The college dean sent a mass email to the college condemning the order, and a conservative student replied to everyone with questions about why. That prompted a long back-and-forth that resulted in administrators calling the student to a disciplinary hearing.
The hearing was canceled when the student involved Republican lawmakers, who since have hammered the UI for suppressing conservative voices on campus.
Among the regents free speech committee suggestions are several seeming to address that situation specifically.
'We recommend that the regents reaffirm that university resources will not be used for partisan activities, that registered student organizations and individual students will be able to utilize university facilities and email, and that we establish a policy that universities may only take institutional positions on policy matters in conjunction with the board,” Barker said. 'This includes presidents, vice presidents, deans and department directors.”
All three of Iowa's public university presidents Wednesday shared updates about what their campuses have and are doing to support free speech, including at UI, where President Bruce Harreld touted a new free speech website.
That site centralizes the campus' First Amendment policies, frequently asked questions, history of UI free speech, and it provides a space for community members to report concerns.
Iowa State University issued a campus statement on its free speech stance and added a required syllabus statement to be included in summaries of all courses - after one of its professors in the fall warned students in a syllabus not to take positions against things like Black Lives Matter and abortion.
All three campuses also will increase training and education on the issue.
'Iowa State University does not punish individuals for their constitutionally protected rights to expression, nor do we have policies or practices that prohibit expression based on the content of expression or the viewpoint of the speaker,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said Wednesday, reading from her campus' First Amendment statement.
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