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A House committee Thursday advanced an altered version of a Senate free speech bill aimed at enshrining into law new Board of Regents First Amendment initiatives that would - among other things - ban administrators from making public statements on policy issues without Board of Regents' signoff.
The new version drops language from the initial Senate bill that, among other things, bars campus diversity training promoting 'divisive concepts” - like race or sex 'stereotyping” or 'scapegoating” and the idea that 'Iowa is fundamentally racist or sexist.” Lobbyists - including those representing One Iowa Action, the Iowa Association of School Boards, and the Board of Regents - all voiced appreciation for the removed 'divisive concepts” language, which was a direct reference to a controversial White House executive order in the fall.
'I agree,” Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, said about the 'divisive concepts” removal. 'I don't think that has any place in a free speech bill. It's kind of ironic.”
The bill included many of the proposals a Board of Regents free speech committee recommended the campuses adopt this week following high-profile First Amendment issues across the campuses in the fall.
At UI, the College of Dentistry dean in October sent students, faculty and staff a mass email condemning a White House executive order barring diversity training promoting race and sex scapegoating and stereotyping.
And at Iowa State University, a professor distributed a syllabus warning students from taking positions against things like Black Lives Matter, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
Lawmakers in response have held oversight hearings and introduced a barrage of legislation this session meant to crack down on free speech suppression and violations on the campuses - including one bill aiming to eliminate tenure.
Although Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, on Thursday called the House bill 'a good start,” she urged more pointed and direct language inspired by the UI incident and repercussions she'd like imposed against violators.
'There needs to be a paragraph in there about requiring a public institution of higher education to attempt to remain neutral on current public policy controversies,” she said, turning her attention to language in the bill allowing a university to fire faculty it determines discriminated against a student.
'Instead of just saying the faculty member's employment may be terminated, I think you could say, two times and then they will be terminated,” Salmon said.
But Bohannan noted First Amendment violations aren't always clear cut.
'There's a lot of gray area here,” she said, noting context plays a big role in determining whether something is a violation. 'Even First Amendment experts often might disagree with each other about whether something is a violation or not.”
Plus, as a UI law professor herself, Bohannan said managing real-time classroom discussion can be difficult.
'When you have a faculty member in the middle of the classroom and somebody says something or does something out of the blue, unexpected, and they're trying to manage that situation, it can be really hard to figure that out, even for First Amendment experts, let alone for a science teacher,” Bohannan said, urging the bill allow for a discipline process.
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