ELECTION 2020

Iowa State's College Republicans report 'fighting for America' on day of Capitol riot

'Destroy the RINOs,' student group tweeted shortly before chaos

Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. As Congress prepares to affirm Pres
Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. As Congress prepares to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, thousands of people have gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The Iowa State University College Republicans student group, which urged people after the November election to “arm up,” tweeted on the day this week rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol that some of its members were in Washington and it was time to “destroy” Republicans considered disloyal to the party.

“We are in DC and Des Moines fighting for America,” the students announced Wednesday on Twitter,

Before insurrectionist breached the Capitol and forced lawmakers to flee, the student group also tweeted: “The brave people fighting on the front lines in DC (many are members of our club) are brave patriots.”

“We are praying for you all,” the ISU students wrote in response to a “today is the day” message from a “Million MAGA March” account promoting a massive “stop the steal” protest.

“Destroy the RINOs,” the ISU student group wrote — referencing the term “Republican in name only” — about 30 minutes before riotous and in many cases armed supporters of President Donald Trump began clashing with police at the Capitol. At least five people, including a police officer, died in the melee.

In response to a request from The Gazette for comment, ISU administrators said they had none.

“The university does not have any comment,” ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt said. “And there has not been any communication with the student group.”

Members of the ISU College Republicans did not respond to any outreach from The Gazette via email, phone calls or social media messages. The students continued Thursday and Friday posting messages spreading conspiracy theories.

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In November, ISU administrators declined to reprimand their College Republicans group for a Nov. 7 tweet — after Democrat Joe Biden was elected president — that read, “Everyone, you must arm up, expect these people to attempt to destroy your life, the elites want revenge on us.”

A Nov. 12 open letter signed by 35 pages worth of ISU faculty, student, and staff, urged the university to — among other things — revoke recognition of the student group until every remaining member graduates. It also demanded ISU change 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.”

ISU leaders — including its vice president for student affairs, dean of students, provost and vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion — declined to take any action against the group, asserting the university “has a total and complete obligation to abide by the First Amendment.”

“Upholding the First Amendment also means the university cannot deprive students or student organizations of their rights, or punish them for exercising those rights, except in a very limited set of circumstances,” which the letter said includes: “a direct threat against an individual; severe and pervasive harassment that substantially interferes with students’ education; or expression that is paired with criminal conduct (vandalism, for example).”

Neither the University of Iowa or University of Northern Iowa college Republican groups have tweeted since this week’s attack on the Capitol.

ISU adjunct assistant professor Julie Roosa, a First Amendment specialist, said free speech issues are very fact-specific and institutions often have little recourse — even against broadly-offensive language.

“When the facts don’t rise to the level of what’s required under the law to be speech that you can punish, then it’s protected by the First Amendment,” she said. “So the question here would be, what is the speech at issue with the ISU Republicans? And then also what is the speech at issue in Washington, D.C.?” Of course, Roosa said, this might not be an issue of speech at all — if, in fact, ISU students took actual action. If they did, that becomes a law enforcement question and what power ISU has to punish students for off-campus behavior.

If they did use only words to support insurrectionists, Roosa said, the university might be limited.

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“On speech, pure speech, we have that natural instinct to want some one to be held responsible or to be punished for speech that we don’t like,” she said. “But the reality is that oftentimes — most of the time, frankly — the First Amendment provides that space for speech that we agree with and speech that we might disagree with — even strongly.

“I think Iowa State is mindful of that responsibility, and takes it seriously.”

Other campuses nationally have faced similar issues and concerns this week.

University of Colorado Boulder, for example, chastised one of its visiting scholars — John Eastman — who spoke at the rally before the riot, according to a letter from CU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano. Although he slammed Eastman for advocating “repugnant” conspiracy theories — noting he “embarrassed our institution” — DiStefano said his campus won’t fire him.

“The university will not censor a faculty member’s political statements or initiate disciplinary action because it disapproves of them,” he wrote. “I will not violate the law by removing a visiting professor from a position that he will occupy at most for only a few more months, as his contract will expire in May.”

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

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