FIRE statement on the University of Iowa’s guidance on faculty speech about masks, vaccinations

August 12, 2021

This week, the University of Iowa issued guidance for faculty members on mask usage and vaccination-related issues. The guidance included a segment that directly impacts academic freedom:

Q: May I make statements in the classroom regarding mask usage or vaccinations?

A: You may only make statements regarding mask usage or vaccinations in the context of course material discussions of health-related issues. Outside that context, if you are asked, you may share your personal choice regarding the decision to wear a mask or be vaccinated without making a statement regarding the value of the choice or any value judgments about decisions not to be vaccinated. Remember that there is a power differential between you and your students, and they may perceive you asking them to wear a mask or if they have been vaccinated as a requirement that they do so.

FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley responds:

Iowa’s restriction of classroom discussions about mask usage or vaccinations to the context of “course material discussions of health-related issues” is too broad to be consonant with academic freedom. To name just one example, a discussion about mask usage or vaccinations would be entirely appropriate in a philosophy course dealing with issues of collective action, despite the course not being about “health-related issues.”

There is no constitutional basis for a public university to restrict professors from expressing “value judgments” in explaining why they made the choices they did about masks or vaccination, whether for or against. Nor may Iowa prevent them from opining as private citizens or academics on matters of public policy. Value judgments motivate a great deal of human decision-making, and the ability to thoroughly discuss and debate the merits of such decisions is a hallmark of liberal education and free speech more generally. 

The link to the guidance now indicates that revisions are forthcoming.


Schools:  University of Iowa