Letter: Campus Free-Speech Zones Are A Right That Iowa State Cannot Restrict

By October 28, 2014

By Catherine Sevcenko at Iowa State Daily

The Iowa State Student Senate just voted down a referendum to expand free speech zones on Iowa State’s campus. In response to a subsequent Daily editorial lamenting the university’s dismal attitude toward free speech, one student senator defended the restrictions Iowa State places on free expression in the Daily article “GSB Clarifies Free Speech Zone,” published Oct. 22. According to the author, Iowa State has struck the right balance between student safety and free speech, students shouldn’t have to deal with “offensive” ideas and the “system isn’t broken.”

Actually, Iowa State’s system is very broken. So broken in fact that two students have sued the university for violating their free speech rights. Last January, administrators actually rewrote Iowa State’s trademark policy to forbid the school’s name from being associated with “unhealthy behavior” and then used the rule to censor T-shirt designs of the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Administrators didn’t explain how simply advocating for pot legalization could be unhealthy, and they still haven’t. But complaints about the T-shirts from donors and state legislators could have proven hazardous to Iowa State’s fundraising efforts — apparently that was close enough.


Thankfully, two students from NORML ISU stood up for their free speech rights, and the rights of everyone else on campus, and sued Iowa State. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the non-profit organization where I work, is proud to support this effort as part of our Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. Iowa State administrators will now have to somehow convince a judge that a T-shirt arguing for reform of marijuana laws isn’t protected by the First Amendment.

But Iowa State’s trademark policy is just one way the administration stifles student speech. Iowa State earns a “red light” rating from my organization, which means that at least one of the school’s policies unambiguously infringes on protected expression. That’s unconstitutional; the government, which includes a public university like Iowa State, cannot silence speech protected by the First Amendment.

The problem lies in Iowa State’s harassment policy, which says the university may prohibit speech that is “unacceptable” even if it doesn’t meet “the legal definition of harassment.” Who decides what is unacceptable? Bureaucrats at Iowa State presumably. How do you know if you’re being unacceptable? Simple: You don’t. That’s why rules like this are unlawful on America’s public campuses — there’s no way they can ever be fair.

In the 1999 case of Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the Supreme Court defined student-on-student harassment as discriminatory, targeted conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” Ideas that are merely “unacceptable,” irritating, offensive or wrong-headed don’t fall under this standard, no matter what Iowa State or its student senators say.

In his op-ed, the student senator argued vaguely that a rating “doesn’t always completely define a person, an institution or anything in general,” comparing Iowa State’s red light to reviews onRateMyProfessor.com. But the ranking isn’t some crowd-sourced measure of “hotness”; it’s a determination, made by attorneys, that Iowa State is failing to meet its legal obligations under the First Amendment.

The Constitution, the supreme law of the land, states that the government may not “abridge the freedom of speech.” There is no carve-out for the wishes of student senators or public university administrators. The Supreme Court has been crystal clear: A government actor like Iowa State can’t silence speech it doesn’t like nor can it silence a speaker because someone else might not like the message.

World War II-era Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once remarked that “every person must be his own watchman for truth.” Prominent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams pointed out at my organization’s recent 15th anniversary dinner that Jackson’s view is “not uniquely liberal or conservative; it is freedom-protecting nothing more or less.” Indeed, that’s why it has survived for so long. The brave students of NORML ISU have stood up for freedom at Iowa State. Their fellow students should support them.

Schools: Iowa State University