Staff Editorial

New law strengthens free expression on Iowa campuses

Protestors hold their hands in the air chanting
Protestors hold their hands in the air chanting "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" at a Hands Up Walk Out protest on the pentacrest at 12:01 p.m., the time of Michael Brown's death in August, to show solidarity with protestors in Ferguson, MO in Iowa City on Monday, December 1, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Senate File 274 into law this week, joined in her office by students from Iowa colleges. The law will bolster students’ and faculty members’ rights to express themselves freely on public campuses.

The Republican-sponsored legislation directs the Board of Regents and Iowa’s community colleges to adopt policies protecting free expression on campus. It declares students and faculty have the freedom to assemble and engage in spontaneous demonstrations, and that outdoor areas of public campuses are public forums.

Policymakers took a broad view of freedom of expression, to include protests, speeches, distributing literature and circulating petitions, subject to narrowly tailored restrictions on time, place and manner, as long as those rules are viewpoint-neutral, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment.

The law reads in part, “[I]t is not the proper role of an institution of higher education to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which may include ideas and opinions the individual finds unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive.”

Under the new law, public colleges cannot designate “free-speech zones” or otherwise restrict free expression to particular areas of campus.

Free-speech zones may sound like a pro-First Amendment project, but they are quite the opposite. College administrators have used the zones to relegate student activists to specific locations on campus, effectively cutting off free assembly in other areas.

Iowa State University has imposed such restrictions in the past, requiring students to register their events in advance and use one of two free-speech zones on campus, according to a 2016 report from the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. That earned ISU a “red light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education,

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It is a good law on the whole, although we share some Democrats’ hesitation about a provision that bars colleges from denying official status to groups that require leaders to support the group’s beliefs.

That was included as an apparent response to a legal challenge from Business Leaders in Christ at the University of Iowa, which lost official recognition in 2017 after a student said he was barred from a leadership post for being openly gay.

The UI case highlights sensitive and complicated issues that might have been more thoughtfully debated as a stand-alone bill, rather than as part of this otherwise widely agreeable legislation.

Those concerns notwithstanding, Iowa’s new campus free speech law is a welcome development.

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