After contentious debate in the Iowa House, which last year snubbed a similar bill, a measure aimed at enshrining “free speech” protections on Iowa’s public universities and college campuses is headed to the governor’s desk to become law.
Last Monday, the bill passed the Iowa Senate with a comfortable 35-11 majority, clearing the same hurdle it had cleared last year before House leadership declined to take it up.
But the legislation’s second wind this year proved stronger, with freshman Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, on Thursday pitching it as a common-sense bill preventing public universities and community colleges from “protecting students from others’ free speech.”
A chain of House Democrats disagreed with that take, arguing — among other things — that a key piece of the legislation letting student organizations exclude leaders based on their beliefs amounts to “state-sponsored discrimination.”
“I cannot vote for this bill today because this bill would usher in discrimination at our community colleges and public universities,” said Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids.
Bennett said she would have supported the bill had the chamber adopted an amendment from Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, to delete a line. The provision she wanted to strike prevents universities and colleges from denying benefits to student groups that have requirements their leaders support their beliefs.
“Passage of this bill will permit the types of discrimination we’ve seen in the past, which have been justified sometimes by people’s personal beliefs,” Bennett said. “Will we have publicly-funded organizations that express a bona fide belief against interracial marriage? Will we have publicly-funded student organizations who don’t allow female leadership at all because they don’t believe females should hold authority over a man?”
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Wolfe’s amendment to remove the one sentence about student organizations she called “toxic” failed 45-51.
“We all know what it means or what it’s supposed to mean,” Wolfe said of that line. “It means that under this provision, we are codifying the right of student organizations to violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act and to discriminate against their peers who do not share their exact values or beliefs by denying them the opportunity to hold leadership positions in the student organizations.”
Despite the pushback, the GOP-contolled House approved the bill 52-44, with Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, joining Democrats in opposition.
The bill — which also requires public universities and colleges to adopt free-speech policies and explicitly bars First Amendment restrictions pertaining to public assemblies, campus property and outside speakers — saw similar heated rhetoric in the Senate last year.
Debate in that chamber this year, however, was more tempered — even gaining some Democratic support.
“On a college campus, the right to meet in university facilities, to use campus bulletin boards, or participate in club recruitment days — this is no different than the right of citizens to gather in the town square,” bill sponsor Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said in advocating for it.
Sinclair justified the need for this legislation by airing concerns with recent incidents on Iowa’s public university campuses — which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers shared, though for different reasons.
Student org uproar
The bill not so subtly addresses the events of concern, including the University of Iowa’s dispute with faith-based student groups.
In that case, which began in fall 2017, UI administrators deregistered the student group Business Leaders in Christ — which goes by BLinC — for barring an openly gay member from becoming a leader in the organization.
The university said BLinC was discriminating and violating the UI human rights policy.
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But BLinC sued, arguing it can choose leaders aligned with its values — and that UI, rather, was discriminating against it.
A federal judge found the UI was singling out BLinC and forced the institution to re-register BLinC on an interim basis. Being a registered student group comes with an array of benefits, including access to student recruitment fairs, bulletin boards, email addresses, facilities and student fees.
Following a review of its 500-plus student groups, the university found hundreds — like BLinC — were non-compliant with its human rights policy. So the UI deregistered dozens more, prompting a second student group — InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship — to sue for discrimination and First Amendment violations.
A federal judge recently resolved the counter discrimination claims with a split decision — mandating BLinC be allowed back on campus permanently unless the university starts equally enforcing its human rights policy by prohibiting all groups from excluding members based on protected class — like sex, race, gender or religion.
The InterVarsity case remains unresolved and the two sides are sparring over how the BLinC decision should affect it.
Those opposing views of student rights exhibited in the BLinC and InterVarsity lawsuits — with some perceiving the religious groups as victims and others seeing the students they restrict as such — emerged in last week’s Senate debate as well, when freshman Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, proposed an amendment that — like Wolfe’s in the House — sought to delete the student group rules.
Wahls — who made a name as an LGBTQ advocate, including a speech before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in 2011 — expressed support for the tenets of free speech but concern over students the bill could possibly harm.
He said the student group provision would “create a loophole that will lead to discrimination against students at our state schools who are from a group that is either historically or contemporaneously marginalized.”
Sponsor Sinclair said she see threats on free speech as more dire.
“Frankly, I’m more concerned about the attacks on students’ First Amendment rights,” she said, calling “logically and legally incorrect” arguments that student groups receiving student fees amounts to state endorsement of those groups’ agendas.
“Courts and the universities have always been clear that there is no state endorsement tied to any student group having access to such money,” Sinclair said. “All kinds of clubs organize around beliefs that some students share and other students oppose.”
Religious students pay fees, too, she noted.
“And, of course, they understand that their money — the money they pay — may also go to clubs with which they disagree,” Sinclair said. “What makes this fair is the ability of religious students to organize their own clubs on an equal basis as everyone else.”
As a matter of “practical necessity,” she said, that must include the right to choose leaders who support the club’s mission and goals.
“It does not equate to discrimination,” she said. “It’s not discrimination to allow students to assemble as they see fit.”
Wahls’ amendment — like Wolfe’s — failed.
And the measure passed the Senate with some Democratic support — even as Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said he, too, would have liked to omit the student group clause.
“I think it would have made it a perfect bill,” said Quirmbach, who voted for it. “But perfection is hard to come by in this chamber.”
Beyond the bill’s student org clause, the bill regulates campus public spaces and speakers.
“A member of the campus community who wishes to engage in non-commercial expressive activity in outdoor areas of campus shall be permitted to do so freely, subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions,” according to the bill.
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Although colleges and universities could continue to designate “free-speech zones,” as they’ve been called, the bill mandates “access to designated areas of campus must be granted on a viewpoint-neutral basis with in the bounds of established First Amendment principles.” But the bill envisions most outdoor areas on campus as free-speech areas, not only the ones designated by the schools.
Iowa State University in recent months and years has dealt with controversy over speakers and space on campus, just this month facing uproar over self-proclaimed white supremacist Nick Fuentes’ visit.
Fuentes, during his March 6 visit to campus, said College Republicans and Turning Point USA, which no longer has a registered ISU chapter, organized his stop.
With protesters and police involved, Fuentes was moved from East Hall to a free-speech zone outside, according to junior Ben Whittington, a candidate for Student Government president and past president of ISU’s Turning Point USA chapter but who was not involved in making the invitation.
The event ended peacefully, but Whittington told The Gazette he has concerns.
“I don’t necessarily say that he shouldn’t have been allowed to come to campus. My stance is that if a student org wants to invite him, they can. But they cant just keep it hush-hush,” he said. “His ideas are fairly dangerous if they go unchallenged.”
As a Student Government candidate, Whittington said he would condemn and work to disband student organizations that promote white supremacy or other discrimination “that leads to harassment.”
He also wants ISU to conduct a review of its student groups, which he said face similar inequities as at the UI.
“I don’t want to curb their values or tell them their values are wrong,” he said. “But when they involve actively discriminating against other students, that should be stopped.”
‘A lot of work’
Sen. Quirmbach acknowledged the daunting challenge of balancing free speech rights with discrimination protections and other harms, but said he believes this year’s revised version of the bill steers the “very narrow and challenging course.”
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Among its revisions, for example, is one excluding health care facilities — like the UI Hospitals and Clinics — as lawmakers and the Board of Regents last year expressed concern about disrupting the “healing environment” with protests in and around the hospitals.
“Our universities, and indeed our society as a whole, are tasked with the responsibility of allowing for the free expression of a wide range of beliefs,” Quirmbach said. “A university has to accommodate a universe of beliefs.”
Last year, the Board of Regents opposed the bill, noting its universities already have free-speech policies and procedures. Board spokesman Josh Lehman this year told The Gazette, “Our public universities are places where all viewpoints should and can be heard and respected.
“This has been a long-standing core principle of institutions of higher learning,” Lehman said. “The board and our universities do and will continue to support this right.”
Quirmbach told his Senate colleagues he talked with a UI representative, who told him he believes the institution “will be able to respect the diversity of views while still protecting the rights of people on the basis of status.”
“They do have a lot of work to go back and do,” however, Quirmbach said. “The court decision has laid out they have been pretty inconsistent in their policies with regard to organizations. That is discrimination on the basis of status.
“They have to go back, and they have to get that right.”
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