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Iowa State stands up for First Amendment after FIRE letter, turns down demands to violate law

Iowa State University campus


FIRE rushed a letter to Iowa State earlier this month after the university suggested it might punish the ISU College Republicans over a controversial tweet. The university got the message and now appears to be solidly reacquainted with its Constitutional obligations. Case in point: ISU’s firm rejection yesterday of a group’s demands that the university begin punishing “hate speech” and monitoring course content for objectionable material.

In an “Open Letter Calling for Action on ISU College Republicans,” assistant professor of journalism Kelly Winfrey and several hundred other faculty, students, and alumni cited the College Republicans’ Nov. 7 tweet (“Everyone, you must arm up, expect these people to attempt to destroy your life, the elites want revenge on us.”) as the catalyst for three demands: That ISU punish groups like the College Republicans for their tweets; that the university amend the Student Code of Conduct to better address “hateful” speech; and that university administrators create additional “diversity” requirements and monitor course content to ensure compliance.

The College Republicans at Iowa State sent this controversial tweet Nov. 7. Before a letter from FIRE in the following days, ISU briefly suggested the message violated university policy.

In a strongly-worded defense of civil liberties, ISU denied each demand in turn.

First, ISU reminded the signatories that the First Amendment forbids the university from punishing hurtful or hateful speech. It’s also worth noting that an Iowa law enacted in 2019 also prohibits public institutions, like Iowa State, from discriminating against student organizations on the basis of their expression or viewpoint.

One point of interest for FIRE was the Open Letter’s incorrect statement that:

Tweets made by a university affiliated student organization are not protected speech if they violate university policy. In choosing to be a student at Iowa State University and speaking as an affiliated student organization, the College Republicans have agreed to conduct themselves according to those policies. The administration has made a choice to disregard its own regulations on this matter.

The suggestion that students waive their First Amendment rights when they enroll at a public university is flatly incorrect. To the contrary, student codes of conduct at public institutions are fully subordinate to the Constitution. (FIRE has an entire Policy Reform team tasked with reviewing such codes to ensure they meet their legal obligations.)

ISU’s response explained as much, and more, including a robust defense of expressive freedoms:

Iowa State University, as a public institution, has a total and complete obligation to abide by the First Amendment. Its five freedoms – religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly, and petitioning the government for redress of grievances – are bedrock principles upon which our nation was founded. Upholding the First Amendment also means the university cannot deprive students or student organizations of their rights, or punish them for exercising those rights, except in a very limited set of circumstances such as a direct threat against an individual; severe and pervasive harassment that substantially interferes with students’ education; or expression that is paired with criminal conduct (vandalism, for example). Doing so would violate their First Amendment rights in much the same way as forbidding protests, or censoring the university’s student newspaper. In short, this demand asks that the university proactively violate the law, and we will not do so.

ISU also invoked First Amendment protections in turning down the group’s second demand, to change the Code of Conduct to prohibit hateful speech:

Codes of conduct at other universities that have attempted to punish students for speech deemed “hateful,” “derogatory,” “threatening,” “insensitive” or described with other such terms have consistently been struck down as unconstitutional. Moreover, the university cannot establish its own thresholds for threatening or hateful speech that are broader than the limited exceptions currently allowed in federal law. 

ISU reminded the group that while federal law limits how ISU may proscribe certain speech, “[t]his does not mean, however, that we should discontinue our efforts to encourage members of the campus community to treat each other with respect.” 

FIRE agrees. While free expression protects Open Letter signatories’ right to call on ISU to flout the law — and undermine their own rights — by forbidding protected speech, they can also use those free expression rights to effect change.

Finally, in denying the third demand, to oversee course content, ISU upholds principles of free expression and academic freedom that forbid administrators from meddling in faculty affairs. Accordingly, ISU said its Faculty Senate would consider diversity initiatives in due course. ISU administrators, appropriately, would avoid interfering in a process that belongs to faculty.

In closing its response, ISU wrote:

As an educational institution, it is our charge and responsibility to foster and encourage the understanding of new ideas, the development of expression and thought, and the skill of interacting in a positive way with our community and our world. This responsibility is not accomplished through suppressing speech or dictating thought. Rather, it is accomplished through education, example, discussion, debate, demonstration and building relationships. We pledge to do more in the coming year to educate the campus community on the history and benefits of the First Amendment, as well as how to exercise its freedoms responsibly…”

FIRE is heartened to see ISU’s now clear commitment to not only its legal obligations, but also to the broader ideals of expressive freedom.

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