Education

Iowa State taps special counsel for free speech defense

Lawsuit: ISU policies 'restrain, deter, suppress, and punish speech concerning political and social issues'

The campanile at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
The campanile at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

An Iowa State University junior wants to scrawl political messages like “Trump 2020” in chalk on his campus’ walkways. A sophomore wants to use his university email to encourage others to support pro-gun laws and candidates. And a third student wants to be in a “build the wall” demonstration.

But they and other ISU members of the national group Speech First say they’re afraid to because of what they characterize as “unconstitutional” campus rules and policies — some new this fall — to quell offensive speech and respond to bias incidents.

ISU and its officials “have created a series of rules and regulations designed to restrain, deter, suppress, and punish speech concerning political and social issues of public concern,” according to a lawsuit Speech First filed this month in U.S. District Court against more than two dozen ISU administrators and regents.

“And they do so despite Iowa’s central role as the ‘first in the nation’ to weigh in on presidential primary elections.”

Iowa’s Executive Council agreed Monday to retain special Washington, D.C., counsel to defend ISU and the regents from the lawsuit.

Filing attorney Skylar Limkemann has request the court stop ISU from enforcing the policies in question pending the case’s resolution. A U.S. District Court judge hasn’t ruled on it.

In a statement, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen refuted allegations her campus punishes students “for their constitutionally protected rights to expression.”

She cited numerous speakers and guests to campus expressing a wide variety of opinions.

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“Unfortunately, our campus has also experienced bigoted, hateful, racist, and anti-Semitic messaging that, while protected by the First Amendment, is also hurtful and harmful to many students,” she said. “Iowa State University also takes seriously its obligation mandated by federal law to create and maintain a campus that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment.”

The special counsel Iowa agreed to hire “at a discounted rate” is Jenner & Block LLP, which has “previously represented public universities in litigation involving the same legal issues,” according to an engagement letter.

The Speech First case comes after Iowa lawmakers last March passed new regulations around speech and expression on public universities — legislation the suit cites in arguing ISU’s sidewalk chalking policy unconstitutionally restricts speech.

“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,” according to the new state law, which the lawsuit quotes.

For years, the lawsuit argues, students have used chalking to spread political messages — gaining such popularity that in 2016 the practice earned the hashtag “#TheChalkening.”

When this fall a “Students Against Racism” group complained to ISU officials about offensive chalking, “instead of handling the controversy in a measured way, the university took extreme measures and banned all chalking,” the suit said.

Then, on Nov. 11, ISU issued an interim policy.

“Registered student organizations may chalk only to publicize an upcoming event that is open to all students,” according to the ISU policy.

The lawsuit also accuses ISU of unlawfully maintaining a policy on student email use — barring messages from ISU accounts that “solicit support for a candidate or ballot measure, or otherwise use email systems in a concerted effort to support a candidate or ballot measure.”

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According to the lawsuit, the policy “apparently allows students on campus to send emails opposing candidates and ballot measures, as well as emails about political issues not tied to a person or an issue on the ballot.”

The third target of the lawsuit is ISU’s “Campus Climate Reporting System,” a university unit that gathers information on and responds to incidents of bias on campus.

The ISU reporting system operates with a definition of “bias incident” that is “broad and vague,” the suit argues.

Specific examples of bias incidents, which the lawsuit states come from ISU, include a student organization hosting a party with a racist theme; social media posts or chats pertaining to race, creed, religion, gender or sex; or classroom commentary perceived as derogatory or biased.

“Other examples that the university gave in the past include comments like, ‘We need fresh faces around here,’ ‘Atheists are going to hell,’ and ‘Build the wall,’” the suit asserts.

During fiscal 2018, ISU’s system received more than 100 bias reports, the lawsuit reports. Examples of incidents actually reported, according to the suit, include written support for Rep. Steve King, Gov. Kim Reynolds and President Donald Trump; a student government discussion of a bill allowing student organizations to limit membership based on beliefs and standards; and a video of an incoming student “sharing and stating hateful speech” over the use of pronouns.

“The university’s policies are irreparably harming countless students who seek to express themselves and voice their opinions without fear of investigation or punishment,” according to the lawsuit.

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

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