After recent free speech controversies, Iowa Board of Regents instigates review of university policies

'This is not who we are, and it is not right'

Mike Richards, president of Board of Regents, talks during a Sept. 17, 2017, Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memori
Mike Richards, president of Board of Regents, talks during a Sept. 17, 2017, Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — With First Amendment issues churning at Iowa’s public universities — including controversial coursework, spurned student groups and contentious social media posts — the Board of Regents has created a committee to review its free speech policy and evaluate its campuses’ compliance.

Additionally, board President Mike Richards this week tasked the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa presidents to provide an update at the board’s February meeting “on exactly how each institution is protecting free speech on campus and in the classroom.”

“Everyone has the right to express their own opinion,” Richards said. “Disagreeing on issues and having a respectful debate about those issues should happen on our university campuses. What should not happen is preventing another person or group’s opinion from being expressed, or threatening those opinions with possible repercussions. This is not who we are, and it is not right.”

Richards, in making his comments, didn’t reference any particular incident on the campuses his board oversees — although there have been many First Amendment and free-speech-related debates and concerns.

But he noted the board last year adopted a free speech policy after both ISU ad the UI ended up in court over separate issues, prompting legislators to enact a new law on “speech and expression at public institutions of higher education in the State of Iowa.”

The board’s committee of three regents will evaluate implementation of its new policy. Regents David Barker, Nancy Boettger and Zack Leist — the board’s student regent, from ISU — also will research best practices at other institutions and recommend changes “that need to be made to strengthen our efforts on free speech.”

“This board will not tolerate the violation of anyone’s freedom of speech on our campuses,” Richards said.


The most recent debate involves ISU and its College Republicans. After the presidential election this month, the student GOP group issued a tweet that some saw as a call to violence: “Everyone, you must arm up, expect these people to attempt to destroy your life, the elites want revenge on us,” it said.

The tweet initially elicited condemnation from ISU leaders.

“Any suggestion of armed activity by an Iowa State student organization is prohibited by university policy,” a spokeswoman said, according to media reports.

But a condemnation was insufficient for dozens of ISU students, faculty, staff and alumni, who wrote an open letter demanding a stronger response — including amending the code of conduct and deregistering the group for now.

But ISU leaders refused to go that far, arguing “doing so would violate their First Amendment rights.”

Just days before that, on another campus, UNI President Mark Nook intervened to allow a student group opposing abortion rights on campus after student government initially refused — labeling it a “hate group,” likening it to a “white supremacist group” and calling its approval a “smack in the face” to women’s rights.

Nook determined the student leaders had not been “content-neutral” in denying the Students for Life of American application, and granted it student organization status and the access to campus resources that comes with it.

“Universities exist to give students and all members of the university community an opportunity to wrestle with a vast diversity of ideas and opinions, to challenge their perception of their own identity and the beliefs and opinions of others, and to grow in their understanding of natural and social systems,” Nook wrote in his eight-page reversal.

Also this semester, ISU faced backlash over an English professor’s syllabus warning that students could be dismissed for “othering” — expressing views deemed racist, sexist or homophobic.


She warned students could not choose for papers or projects “any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (i.e. no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc.)”

And in August, a UI professor apologized after asking students “to decide between being a slave or slave master for a 12-page paper.” The apology came after a Black student told about it on Twitter.

Iowa lawmakers last year enacted a measure that, among other things, directed the Board of regents to adopt a new speech and expression policy for its campuses.

The board in April 2019 adopted policies committing it to its “proper role” of encouraging “diversity of thoughts, ideas, and opinions” and “peaceful, respectful, and safe exercise of First Amendment rights.”

The regents policy explicitly prohibits universities from denying “benefits or privileges available to student organizations based on the viewpoint of a student organization or the expression of the viewpoint by the student organization.”

The policy comes after the UI had been sued by two faith-based student organizations deregistered for barring from leadership positions individuals who didn’t align with their beliefs,

“The universities shall not deny any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization’s requirement that the leaders of the student organization agree to and support its beliefs,” according to the new regents policy. “Student organizations may, but are not required to, limit leadership positions to students who, upon individual inquiry, affirm that they support the student organization’s beliefs and agree to further the student organization’s mission.”

Richards, in his statement about free speech on the campuses, said that “this is an issue we must address, and a conversation that should be transparent and public.”

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