Federal judge rules University of Iowa administrators may have to pay damages out of their own pockets for constitutional violations

October 4, 2019

In a decision last week, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa sent a clear message to University of Iowa administrators — uphold students’ rights to freedom of association or face personal liability.

During the summer of 2018, UIowa informed InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, a registered student organization, that its requirement that leaders share the Christian faith was not in compliance with the UIowa Human Rights Policy because it restricted leadership based on religious beliefs. As a result, InterVarsity was deregistered as a student organization and became ineligible to receive funds from the university’s mandatory Student Activities Fees, to appear in university publications, to reserve meeting space on campus, or to utilize university trademarks. At the same time, UIowa recognized other student organizations whose constitutions included language requiring members to adhere to the groups’ mission, such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the Latina/o Graduate Student Association.

Later that summer, InterVarsity filed suit against UIowa, alleging it violated the First Amendment when it deregistered InterVarsity as a student organization.

InterVarsity is not the only religious student group to be deregistered for non-compliance with the Human Rights Policy. FIRE filed an amicus brief on behalf of Business Leaders in Christ in that student organization’s separate lawsuit against UIowa. InterVarsity was subsequently re-registered pending the outcome of Business Leaders in Christ v. University of Iowa, but its membership numbers and ability to recruit members for the 2018-2019 academic year suffered as a result of its deregistration.

In January 2018, U.S. District Judge Stephanie M. Rose ruled in Business Leaders in Christ that UIowa violated the First Amendment by applying its Human Rights Policy inconsistently and in a viewpoint-discriminatory fashion, putting administrators at UIowa and other public universities on notice that they cannot violate student groups’ freedom of association.

In last week’s ruling granting InterVarsity’s partial motion for summary judgment, Rose — the same judge who decided Business Leaders in Christ — held that UIowa administrators named in the lawsuit are not entitled to qualified immunity and may therefore be personally liable to InterVarsity for damages because they violated the group’s clearly established First Amendment rights. Referring to its previous ruling in Business Leaders in Christ, the court held that, with respect to the UIowa Human Rights Policy, the law on this issue was clearly established as early as January 2018. Rose opined that “[t]he Court does not know how a reasonable person could have concluded this was acceptable, as it plainly constitutes the same selective application of the Human Rights Policy that the Court found constitutionally infirm in the preliminary injunction order.”

Last week’s district court ruling is a win for freedom of association on campus. It is also yet another decision affirming that students’ First Amendment rights at public universities, such as the right to be free from viewpoint-based discrimination, are clearly established such that qualified immunity is not an appropriate defense for college and university administrators who infringe upon those rights

As my colleague Azhar Majeed argued in his 2010 article in the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal, and as FIRE has argued time and time again, university administrators should not be permitted to hide behind the veil of qualified immunity when they violate students’ First Amendment rights. The Eighth Circuit agreed in our 2017 win against Iowa State University, where the student-plaintiffs successfully argued that ISU administrators were not protected by qualified immunity when they engaged in improper viewpoint discrimination. 

Other schools — such as Duke University, which recently denied recognition to a chapter of national Christian group Young Life, and Wayne State University, which is also being sued for derecognizing its chapter of InterVarsity — would do well to watch these developments as federal courts continue to take these claims seriously.

Schools:  University of Iowa