According to an article in the student newspaper Iowa State Daily, “Senators Vote to Advocate Free Speech” by Michaela Ramm, the Iowa State University (ISU) student government voted on December 2 against instituting an additional “free speech zone” on campus but voted in favor of advocating for free speech. This makes little sense.
To be clear, misleadingly titled “free speech zones” have nothing to do with facilitating free speech. They quarantine free expression into tiny, often tucked-away areas of campus, sometimes as small as 0.007 percent of the university’s acreage. They are blatantly unconstitutional, so much so that all but one of the six Stand Up For Speech lawsuits involving a free speech zone challenge have settled. That having been said, from a practical point of view, multiple large free speech zones are better than a single tiny area. So introducing a bill in the ISU student senate increasing the area of campus where the right to free expression is acknowledged was a step in the right direction.
If the student senate had voted down the free speech zone because it was unconstitutional and demanded that the administration recognize that all open areas of campus are open for free expression, that would have been fantastic. But as reported in Ramm’s article, an amendment to strike a provision to create an expanded free speech zone passed unanimously, leaving a hollowed out bill designed to “encourage the administration to create more clear and concise language on university policies.” That, according to the amendment’s sponsor, “will be expanding free speech by clarifying the free-speech zones.”
It is a new low for a student government to vote against instituting a new free speech zone because it makes the campus too open for speech, choosing instead to limit the expressive rights of the students it is supposed to represent. The reasoning is as depressing as the result. As the bill’s sponsor, Robert Dunn, put it in a letter to the editor in the Iowa State Daily:
Yes, the bill is not perfect. Unfortunately, we have a culture of hyper sensitivity and political correctness on college campuses that makes it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to have an intelligent discussion about the First Amendment. Until we say enough to safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggression culture, among other forms of censorship of speech on our campuses, compromises like these [expanding available areas for free speech] are in order.
Dunn’s efforts are admirable, while those of his colleagues are not.
It is no secret to Torch readers that ISU has a poor track record when it comes to free expression. It has a “red light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database, and the student government has voted against expanding free speech zones before. (FIRE is also sponsoring a Stand Up For Speech lawsuit against ISU on an unrelated matter—the use of ISU’s trademark policy to stifle advocacy of marijuana legalization.) And yet, to his credit, Paul Tanaka, the university’s general counsel, spoke up in favor of the bill. As quoted in the article, he stated: “If we’re trying to protect people from what they call ‘offensive speech,’ that is concerning to me. ... We are trying to foster interaction and this town square culture. It’s concerning when we try to shut that out.”
Although expanding the free speech zones would have been an improvement, I’m not sure what a commitment to “advocate” for free speech rights means. As long as the Constitution remains the supreme law of the land, the right of free speech is a given. Unless the Supreme Court reverses many decades of case law, the First Amendment will continue to apply on public college campuses. The First Amendment doesn’t need ISU student government approval.
But it’s the First Amendment that gives members of the student government—and all other ISU students—the right to advocate for anything else they care about. For instance, the ISU administration cannot stop the student government from sponsoring a town hall meeting with John Kasich thanks to the First Amendment. Instead the student senators can debate freely the issues before it, whether it be raising tuition for international students, or providing funding for a trip to a Leather Leadership conference for the ISU BDSM club. Next time the student senators consider a bill supporting free expression on campus, they should consider more carefully acknowledging that all students on campus have the rights of expression that they apparently take for granted.