Education

Rejection of anti-abortion student group labeled 'hate group' reversed at University of Northern Iowa

'Neither the university nor NISG endorse any student organization's viewpoints'

A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

After being referred to as a “hate group” and likened to a “white supremacist group,” Students for Life of America now is a “fully recognized student organization” on the University of Northern Iowa campus thanks to an intervening ruling from UNI President Mark Nook.

Nook’s finding that Northern Iowa Student Government was not content-neutral in denying the Students for Life of America application upended the rejection and granted it student org status and thus access to student government funding and promotional methods.

“Viewpoint discrimination is both unconstitutional and undemocratic,” Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins said in a statement responding to the UNI reversal. “A conversation on the human rights issue of our day — abortion — is demanded of all those who care about how our society has devalued life based on location. Whether in the womb, at the border, or in any city in America, preborn life matters and deserves legal protection.”

Nook — in an eight-page ruling that found, if left to stand, the student government’s decision would have violated the First Amendment rights — wrote, “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.”

UNI Students for Life, according to university officials, met criterial required for registration as a student organization when the student government’s student senate rejected their request Oct. 7.

In audio posted online of the senate’s debate and eventual rejection, UNI student senators justified their decision to reject the group with arguments like:

“This is hate speech, this is hateful rhetoric that is infringing on basic human rights of health care;”

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“Approving this bill is the same thing as approving a white supremacist group that’s trying to make an organization on campus; you’re basically saying you support them to violate human rights;”

NISG Appeal Letter by Gazetteonline on Scribd

“We are veering dangerously close to false equivalency, as in we assume that all opinions deserve, you know, equal footing;”

And, “A tiny percentage of people would even support it. I don’t know why our student money would be going to this.”

UNI student senator Caleb Stekl argued the vast majority of their constituents would urge against approving such a group.

“I would beg and plead and implore with anyone who does approve this to stand in front of your constituents, especially your female constituents, and tell them that you have approved an organization that wants to criminalize them for using the reproductive rights,” he said. “I think that’s just an absolute smack in the face to all the years and the hard work that women and activists have done since the 1950s and 60s to make sure that women can use their reproductive rights.”

Following the senate’s denial of the Students for Life application citing its policy against “discriminatory harassment,” the group appealed to the student government’s supreme court, which also denied the request, “even thought NISG’s own representatives had argued the senate’s decision was erroneous,” according to a UNI news release.

The court cited another reason for rejection — lack of “good faith” in the UNI Students for Life application because a majority found its proposed constitution to be vague. The court’s dissenting minority argued, “The majority opinion has predicted actions of UNI Students for Life — sowing unrest on campus and depriving others of their rights — that go far beyond the logical scope of this case.

Following that second rejection, UNI Students for Life last week took their case to the president’s office, which can make final decisions in such cases, and Nook sided with the applicant.

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“Neither the university nor NISG endorse any student organization’s viewpoints by approving them as student organizations,” Nook wrote in his ruling. “By denying them recognition when they intend, in good faith, to engage in lawful activities, we deny them their right to free speech and assembly guaranteed to them by the First Amendment.”

The incident bears stark resemblance to other matters involving First Amendment issues across Iowa’s college campuses, including recent rejections at some of requests to start Turning Point USA chapters, like at Coe and Cornell colleges; the University of Iowa’s controversial and litigated deregistration of its Business Leaders in Christ student group; and its subsequent call to drop similar student organizations, suc InterVarsity.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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