Lawmakers revive push for campus 'free-speech'

Panel endorses bill as religious groups in court with UI

(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gaze
(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A day after a federal judge barred the University of Iowa from throwing off campus a Christian group at odds with the UI’s human rights policy, lawmakers took the first step toward enshrining free speech protections — including for student groups — in Iowa Code.

“A public institution of higher education shall not deny any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization’s requirement that the leaders of the student organization affirm or agree to the student organization’s beliefs or standards of conduct,” according to one line in the proposed bill, which strikes at the heart of a federal lawsuit pitting the UI against the student group Business Leaders in Christ.

The group, which calls itself BLinC, won a permanent injunction last week allowing it to keep operating and recruiting on campus. The UI initially sought to deregister the group after it denied an openly gay member the opportunity to join the group’s leadership — a violation of the university’s human rights rules. But the judge said the UI had unevenly enforced the policy among student groups, citing examples of groups it had allowed despite such violations.

But the judge held out the possibility that if the UI does evenly enforce its rules — and if BLinC is not in compliance — the group could find itself on the outs again.

“This bill is super important to the students being able to express themselves while furthering their own beliefs,” Dan Breitbarth, a law student and president of the Christian Legal Society at Drake Law School, said last Thursday during a subcommittee meeting, a day after the court ruling.

“All student organizations have the opportunity to receive funding from the university to further their interests and further their mission,” Breitbarth said. “And quite simply, stifling these specific religious organizations is wrong.”

The bill, which passed out of a Senate education subcommittee last week, revives a version introduced in the last legislative session, when both the UI and Iowa State University were battling high-profile free speech cases in court.


The legislation — enacting broad free speech regulation across Iowa’s public Board of Regents universities and community colleges — seemed on track for passage last year, receiving support from the full Senate and from a House subcommittee before stalling.

Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, said he didn’t bring it up for a vote after finding through a caucus on the bill it lacked sufficient Republican support. That left free speech regulation in the hands of the regents, which bill sponsor Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, called insufficient.

“I think it’s always a good thing to have a standard in place so students know what’s expected of them and so that our regents know what is expected of them,” Sinclair said after the bill’s failure last year. “Frankly, if we had rules in place, there wouldn’t be the lawsuits that exist.”

She was referencing, in part, the UI battle with BLinC and the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, which sued the university after it deregistered the groups for failing to comply with its human rights policy.

BLinC was the first kicked off campus in fall 2017. But after a U.S. District Court judge agreed with BLinC that many UI student organizations have similar beliefs-based membership and leadership requirements — including Muslim, Christian, social justice, and military student groups — the university launched a sweeping review of its 500-plus organizations and deregistered nearly 40 more, including InterVarsity.

The judge last week issued a split decision praising the UI human rights policy, but siding with BLinC because of the UI’s uneven enforcement. The InterVarsity dispute remains set for trial, although attorneys have asked for an early ruling in that case, too.

In Ames, ISU last year spent nearly $1 million on what amounted to a losing legal battle over a student organization T-shirt design.

A marijuana-advocacy student group sued administrators after they first approved a T-shirt design that incorporated the ISU mascot with a marijuana leaf but then rescinded it and changed the rules following an outcry from public and state officials.


ISU also came under criticism for hiking security fees for a planned visit from former Breitbart News writer and touted white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos, derailing the event.

This year’s revived free-speech legislation attempts to address a broad swath of First Amendment issues by starting with a mandate that regents and public community colleges adopt free speech policies that, among other things, reiterate their missions of discovery and dissemination of knowledge through research, teaching and debate.

“To fulfill this function, the institution must strive to endure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression allowed under the First Amendment,” the proposed bill states.

The legislation labels the institutions’ outdoor property as a “traditional public forum” and largely bars schools from creating “free-speech zones” or enacting policies “restricting expressive activities to a particular outdoor area of campus.”

Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel with The Family Leader, said he’s heard from students about “egregious free speech violations on campuses.”

“We believe this will help keep students out of court,” he said. “We think this will set rules that everyone can understand and will avoid years of expensive and frankly very contentious litigation. It’s s peacemaking bill.”

The Board of Regents last year opposed the bill, noting its universities already have free-speech policies and procedures. On Thursday, regents lobbyist Keith Saunders said that “we, too, support the First Amendment.”

“We know we’ve been the subject of a number of court cases and a number of newspaper articles. Sometime the First Amendment is messy,” Saunders said. “We try do our best to promote ideals of free speech. That being said, there are times when there are disagreements.”

Those who oppose the bill take issue with its potential to ignore, or even enable, discrimination.


Keenan Crow, with One Iowa Action, said allowing groups to pick members and leaders based on beliefs or conduct “does not sidestep the issue of class-based discrimination at all.”

Rather, he argued, it can be used as a “covert form of class discrimination.”

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