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IOWA CITY — As the Board of Regents this week debuts new free speech training to students, faculty and staff across its public universities, a Des Moines-area attorney is saying they have “a lot of work to do,” given how University of Iowa faculty members reacted to a student expressing his views on “homosexual conduct.”
“This incident shows that the University of Iowa still has a lot of work to do to train its faculty members in the values of free speech and open discussion,” Alan R. Ostergren, attorney and president of the new Kirkwood Institute in Des Moines, said in a statement.
“The university has repeatedly been found to have engaged in anti-Christian viewpoint discrimination by federal courts, and it appears that this incident was similarly motivated,” he said. “This is unacceptable and must immediately be corrected.”
Ostergren told The Gazette on Wednesday that his client — UI graduate student Jacob Johnson — brought a formal complaint before the university in November, accusing three faculty members of violating his due process, free speech and academic freedom rights as outlined in UI policy.
After investigating, UI administrators in December confirmed policy violations and “sustained ethics violations against the individuals involved,” according to Ostergren.
“The university disavowed any claim Mr. Johnson had violated any policy or was subject to discipline for expressing his views to other students,” according to Ostergren.
In a statement, UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said the two professors and associate dean involved “acted in good faith as they attempted to balance the rights of all individuals on campus.”
“The University of Iowa is fully committed to the First Amendment and encourages open dialogue, free inquiry and healthy, vigorous debate,” Beck said. “The university also strives to be an inclusive campus for everyone.”
But Johnson — a second-year master’s student in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in the UI College of Public Health — said the incident “should have never happened in the first place.”
“I worry that other students have been similarly mistreated but did not have the ability to find a lawyer to help them with their case,” he said. “I look forward to continuing with my studies without having to hide who I am or what I believe.”
Here’s how the incident played out, according to Ostergren and UI investigative documents provided to The Gazette:
- In September, Johnson had a “casual conversation” before class with other students on a range of topics. During that discussion, Johnson shared that “homosexual conduct was contrary to his religious beliefs.” “His statements were not directed toward any particular student,” according to Ostergren.
- On Sept. 23, a student emailed UI professor Patrick O’Shaughnessy — Johnson’s adviser and director of graduate studies in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health — to share concerns about interactions with Johnson.
“He has told others that we are ‘immoral’ since we are not as religious as him,” the student wrote, accusing Johnson of targeting one student in particular. “He says it's due to our use of alcohol (since he does not drink), but (the targeted student) is not a heavy drinker. We believe this may be due to homophobia.”
In that email, the student reported feeling uncomfortable going to class with Johnson.
“We feel this is a hostile learning environment since we all feel targeted.”
- A half-hour later, O’Shaughnessy responded to the student and forwarded the email to UI professor Peter Thorne, head of the department, and Margaret Chorazy, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Public Health. Chorazy expressed “immediate concerns” about the potential for harassment based on sexual orientation.
- On Sept. 25, UI associate professor Matt Nonnenmann — who also received the original email — called O’Shaughnessy to share concerns regarding the alleged “homophobic” comments. Three days later, O’Shaughnessy tried calling the UI Office of Institutional Equity, but got no answer.
After reviewing the UI operations manual, O’Shaughnessy determined Johnson might have engaged in harassment and he should alert Johnson “to prevent further escalation that might result in him being formally reprimanded.”
- On Sept. 29, O’Shaughnessy met with Johnson for a previously scheduled advising meeting and raised the concerns. The professor followed that meeting with an email reiterating their discussion, including concerns and possible repercussions.
“Personal interactions with other students are certainly fine on a sociable, friendly level, but not if others develop a sense of discomfort, especially one that can be viewed as harassment,” O’Shaughnessy wrote to Johnson. “I heard you say that you have engaged in conversations of a theological nature with some students that may have been perceived as judgmental, but that was not your intent.”
O’Shaughnessy also acknowledged Johnson apologized and agreed — moving forward — “you should limit your social interactions to be able to apply the time and effort needed” to get a degree.
“I mentioned that there would be a zero-tolerance approach going forward, which, if not complied with would result in a meeting with Dr. Chorazy,” O’Shaughnessy wrote. “I am also going to follow-up with those who expressed their concerns and relate to them that they should let me know if any additional statements, or actions, are made by you that continues to make them feel uncomfortable. I'm confident that won't occur, but am letting you know of the consequences if they do.”
- On Nov. 18, Johnson — via Ostergren — filed a complaint with UI Provost Kevin Kregel affirming his right to express his view that “homosexual conduct was one of many sins committed by people.” Defining unacceptable conversations as those that create discomfort “does not comport with the university’s obligation to respect the academic freedom of its students,” according to Johnson’s complaint.
“Rather than responding to the complaining students that they were all free to think, learn and discuss their views, the faculty members indulged the view that some ideas are forbidden and those who hold them must be silenced,” according to the complaint. “Not only did they fail to rebuke the students who sought to silence Mr. Johnson, they made themselves active participants in the effort.”
In the complaint, Ostergren noted recent court rulings — involving faith-based student organizations accusing UI of discrimination — that found the institution and its officials can be held liable for viewpoint discrimination.
“It appears that the university has not responded to the messages it has repeatedly received from the federal courts,” he wrote.
- On Dec. 2, UI administrators investigated the complaint by interviewing those involved, including O'Shaughnessy, who said he wanted to resolve the matter “at the lowest level possible.”
“O’Shaughnessy stated multiple times in the interview that he did not have adequate training on the professional ethics and responsibility policy, central to the complaint,” according to the investigation.
- On Dec. 22, investigators found O’Shaughnessy violated UI policy by impinging on Johnson’s free speech without evidence of harassment, and that Thorn and Chorazy also violated UI policy by supporting the free speech restraints.
Findings and future
The UI investigative report found O’Shaughnessy failed to gather information, made assumptions based on hearsay, and rushed to “overstepped” future consequences.
Investigators credited O’Shaughnessy for seeking Johnson’s perspective in an attempt to prevent escalation — but they found Johnson’s comments “did not constitute harassment,” and O’Shaughnessy didn’t follow due process in resolving the situation.
As all three of Iowa’s regent campuses in recent years have been criticized, sued and slammed by lawmakers for free speech violations, the board last year created a new free speech committee, conducted a fall free speech survey and committed to annual free speech training.
The new training was rolled out Wednesday to tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff across the three campuses.
“The first step in creating a campus environment where different viewpoints are welcome is to understand the basic principles of First Amendment rights to free expression,” Board of Regents President Michael Richards and regent Greta Rouse wrote in the training email Wednesday.
“Your participation in this training is important to our continued commitment to providing an educational, living and working environment that protects the First Amendment rights of all members of the campus community.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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