FIRE calls on Iowa State to reverse unconstitutional implementation of critical race theory law

July 27, 2021

AMES, Iowa, July 27, 2021 — As Iowa’s new law targeting critical race theory takes effect, Iowa State University is threatening its faculty members’ First Amendment rights by warning — incorrectly — that the law requires administrators and faculty to censor class discussions. 

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is calling on ISU to rescind its implementation of House File 802 and to clarify that students and faculty may speak freely about issues of race and gender. 

A statute created by HF802 requires that administrators at the state’s public universities and colleges “ensure that any mandatory staff or student training” does not “teach, advocate, act upon, or promote” a list of prohibited “divisive concepts.” These concepts include any belief or theory that ascribes “character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.” 

Ignoring the law’s focus on “training” sessions, ISU is telling its faculty that the law requires the university to police regular class instruction, including discussions, course materials, and invited speakers. ISU has warned its faculty that even pedagogically relevant material is now off-limits if presented in a class that might in any way be required — or simply hard to avoid — for any single student.

“State laws are subordinate to the First Amendment, which protects the right of faculty members to discuss pedagogically relevant material,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh, author of today’s letter to ISU. “No statute can dictate to students and faculty what ideas to debate, materials to read, or speakers to question. But ISU is claiming that the law requires censorship, abdicating its professors’ First Amendment rights in the process — especially those faculty members whose teaching concerns issues of race or gender.”

ISU joins the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City Community College as the third institution in recent months to broadly interpret laws that prohibit “training” staff or students about banned concepts to reach beyond trainings and into classroom discussions. But the text of each of these laws makes clear that while they were intended to regulate teaching and classes in K-12 institutions, they only apply to administrative “training” — not instruction — in higher education. 

That’s why the University of Iowa correctly reassured its faculty that the law would have “zero impact” on the classroom. It’s why one lawmaker explained during debate over the bill that it “just affects diversity training” in higher education, and only reaches what teachers are “even allowed to teach and curriculum” in K-12 classes. And it’s why another lawmaker — who is also a professor at ISU — wrote a memo explaining why the university’s interpretation of the law is flawed.

ISU’s interpretation of the legislation will produce a chilling effect on speech. By declaring that the statute reaches the classroom, and advising that certain ways faculty might teach and discuss difficult topics could violate state law, ISU is telling faculty hoping to teach about race or gender to self-censor. Any violation of state law or university policy can subject faculty — including tenured faculty — to discipline. So why would ISU’s faculty risk their livelihoods to discuss difficult subjects at all when their own administration won’t back them up?

As FIRE’s letter explains, if the law applied to the classroom, it would limit a large range of protected speech. ISU’s interpretation unconstitutionally interferes with both a faculty member’s academic freedom and a student’s right to receive information unfettered by a “pall of orthodoxy.” For example, the statute’s application to college classrooms would ban history majors across Iowa from debating whether or not “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” or sociology classes from discussing whether or not “meritocracy . . .  [is] racist or sexist.” 

ISU insists that the law restricts “addressing specific defined concepts” in required classes, “even though discussion of the concepts may be considered germane.” But this means, for example, that a professor must think twice before assigning readings that might prompt discussions of race or gender, like James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” or William Faulkner’s “Light in August.” Forbidding faculty from addressing “divisive concepts” (even to criticize them) gets the purpose of a college education exactly backwards — and violates the First Amendment.   

“The First Amendment was designed to protect the breathing room to discuss views that others — whether students, faculty, activists, or lawmakers — find offensive or ‘divisive,’” said Steinbaugh. “If administrators will not step up to defend their faculty members’ right to voice unpopular opinions and posit them for classroom discussion, FIRE will.” 

Faculty members at ISU — or in any state that has adopted a similar statute — are encouraged to contact FIRE if they’re required to change their teaching because of these laws. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Associate, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org


Schools:  Iowa State University

Cases:  Iowa State University: Implementation of Iowa’s Anti-Critical Race Theory Law, House File 802