Education

Iowa State rejects calls to punish College Republicans for tweet

'This demand asks that the university proactively violate the law, and we will not do so'

A student walks past the Campanile on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (The Gazette)
A student walks past the Campanile on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (The Gazette)

Iowa State University is not going to amend its Student Code of Conduct or discipline its College Republicans, despite demands last week from students, faculty and staff following a postelection tweet deemed threatening from the right-wing student group.

“Doing so would violate their First Amendment rights in much the same way as forbidding protests, or censoring the university’s student newspaper,” according to an ISU administrative response to the Nov. 12 letter of demands signed by more than 30 pages of students, faculty, staff and alumni.

“In short, this demand asks that the university proactively violate the law, and we will not do so.”

The College Republicans at Iowa State on Nov. 7 — the day Joe Biden was declared U.S. president-elect — tweeted “Everyone, you must arm up, expect these people to attempt to destroy your life, the elites want revenge on us.”

Many across Iowa State’s campus viewed that directive as an implied threat of violence, particularly toward marginalized students, faculty and staff — given the College Republicans’ broader body of tweets that includes derogatory terms for liberals, pro-deportation rhetoric, and election-related comments like: “Just remember when this storm is over, these people hate you and want you dead.”

Concerned members of the ISU community listed three primary demands of the administration in light of the tweets.

They first demanded Iowa State follow Iowa’s Federation of College Republicans, which defederated Iowa State’s College Republicans chapter, by disciplining the group for violating ISU’s Principles of Community, Student Code of Conduct, and Student Organization Recognition policy.

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Specifically, the group charged ISU to punish the College Republicans “in the form of removal of recognition as an official student organization until the last remaining current student member from the roster has graduated from the university.”

The group also urged Iowa State to amend its Student Code of Conduct to address “how the institution responds to speech by students and student organizations that promote hate, directly or indirectly threaten the physical safety and free movement of members of the campus community, potentially incite violence, or violates the Principles of Community.”

But Iowa State administrators responded to the demands Monday by rejecting both, asserting — for starters — that it can’t punish members of its campus community for words protected by the First Amendment, even comments that are “hurtful to others.”

“Iowa State University, as a public institution, has a total and complete obligation to abide by the First Amendment,” according to the response from administrators like Dean of Students Sharron M. Evans, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Reginald Chhen Stewart, Provost Jonathan Wickert, and Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Toyia K. Younger.

Citing the First Amendment’s five famed freedoms — religion, speech, peaceful assembly, and petitioning government for redress of grievances — the administrators said Iowa State can’t punish students for exercising those rights, except in limited circumstances.

Such circumstances include “a direct threat against an individual; severe and pervasive harassment that substantially interferes with students’ education; or expression that is paired with criminal conduct.”

The College Republicans’ tweets in question are “protected speech, and standing alone, they do not violate university policy.”

“The university cannot, and will not, punish students or student organizations for their constitutionally protected expression,” according to administrators, who said they did reach out to the student group to warn its members that actually bringing a weapon on campus would violate policy.

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To the demand Iowa State change its Student Code of Conduct, officials said they can’t establish thresholds for threatening speech more broad than the limited exceptions in federal law. And they cited other failures to do so nationally.

“Student codes of conduct at other universities that have attempted to punish students for speech deemed ‘hateful,’ ‘derogatory,’ ‘threatening,’ ‘insensitive’ or described with other such terms have consistently been struck down as unconstitutional.”

Administrators noted that while the campus’ “Principles of Community” are aspirational ideals, “They are neither laws nor policy, and are not enforceable.”

To the group’s third demand that Iowa State show its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion by increasing its campuswide diversity requirements and reviewing diversity course content, Iowa State leadership said faculty — the group responsible for curriculum revisions — is on it.

A faculty working group has prepared, among other things, a diversity-centered draft process for reviewing and approving courses.

“As an educational institution, it is our charge and responsibility to foster and encourage the understanding of new ideas, the development of expression and thought, and the skill of interacting in a positive way with our community and our world,” according to the administrative response. “This responsibility is not accomplished through suppressing speech or dictating thought.”

It’s done, according to administrators, through education, discussion, debate, demonstration, and relationship building.

With President Donald Trump continuing his refusal to concede to President-Elect Biden — with much of the drama playing out on Twitter — Iowa State officials acknowledged, “We live in a very divisive time where much of the rhetoric of the day is designed to divide us, with a focus on our differences, rather than to unite us around our common humanity.”

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“We appreciate and share your concern about the impact this has on members of our community,” according to the ISU administrative response. “Our critical effort to have a diverse and welcoming campus means that we will always have differences of ideas, cultures, experiences, and political ideologies. This is part of the richness of diversity that we strive for.

“However, when those differences are expressed in hateful rhetoric designed to evoke fear, the entire campus suffers.”

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

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