By Jeff Charis-Carlson at Iowa City Press-Citizen
The University of Iowa appears on this year’s “worst of the worst” list compiled by a watchdog organization that monitors free speech on college and university campuses.
In a release Monday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) named UI — along with seven other schools, the Kansas Board of Regents and the U.S. Department of Education — as being among nation’s “10 worst abusers of student and faculty free speech rights.”
“Our colleges and universities are supposed to be where students go to debate and explore new ideas,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in a statement. “But too often on the modern college campus, students and their professors find their voices silenced by administrators who would rather they be absent from the often contentious marketplace of ideas. When this happens, FIRE will be there to call out these reckless censors.”
FIRE often focuses its criticism on institutions’ speech codes that restrict students’ First Amendment rights. UI made this year’s list, however, because of administrators’ reaction late last year to an unauthorized display of a Ku Klux Klan effigy on one of the UI campus’ most heavily trafficked area.
The organization previously had sent a letter, co-signed by the National Coalition Against Censorship, to UI President Sally Mason denouncing the university’s initial Dec. 5 response — as well as the apology Mason issued Dec. 7 — after requiring UI visiting art professor Serhat Tanyolacar to remove a sculpture he had displayed on the UI Pentacrest without requesting permission.
“In these public statements, UI has effectively announced that Tanyolacar is not protected by the First Amendment due to the discomfort it caused to some of those who encountered it,” the letter stated.
In forums and interviews since the Dec. 5 incident, Tanyolacar has said the display was intended as a provocative critique of ongoing racial violence at UI. He has criticized UI’s response for, from his perspective, inaccurately and unfairly suggesting the work itself was racist.
UI officials repeatedly have said that the decision to ask Tanyolacar to remove the sculpture was not based on the context of the sculpture, but on the fact that the artist had not followed the proper procedures and asked for permission before displaying the sculpture.
In her end-of-the-semester message last year, Mason said UI administrators are taking steps to find a healthier balance on campus between the “intertwined values of inclusiveness and freedom of expression.”
“The University of Iowa is strongly committed to freedom of expression,” Tom Rocklin, UI vice president for student life, wrote in an email. “The Pentacrest has frequently been used to exercise these freedoms and this use has been encouraged and facilitated by the university.”
Rocklin said that UI does have a policy about “the use of our shared space,” but it is used in order to be “respectful” of everyone that uses that space.
“While we don’t designate ‘free speech’ areas, anyone is allowed to speak or carry signs on campus, so long as the activity doesn’t interfere with the orderly operation of the university,” Rocklin said. “We regulate displays and rallies in public spaces for a number or reasons including; to assure that two groups don’t plan to use the same space at the same time, to protect campus landscaping and buildings, and to assure that displays don’t constitute a safety hazard or obstruct access to campus buildings and spaces.”
Rocklin also said that, in the past few weeks, UI has changed how the policy is implemented and enforced.
“Approved displays are now issued a permit (which we did not do in the past) to be attached to the display and police are empowered and prepared to remove displays that don’t have the permit attached,” Rocklin said.
The other schools on FIRE’s 2015 list include Brandeis University; California State University, Fullerton; Chicago State University; Georgetown University; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Marquette University; and Modesto Junior College in California.
As part of its Stand Up for Speech Litigation Project, FIRE also is participating in a lawsuit against Iowa State University on behalf of the university’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The student plaintiffs argue that ISU officials censored the group’s T-shirts and other forms of speech based on NORML’s marijuana-related messaging and imagery.