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New Lawsuit Challenges Speech Code at Iowa State University

Earlier this month, Alliance Defending Freedom, which describes itself as “a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith,” announced that it is representing a student at Iowa State University who filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging an ISU speech code.

According to the complaint, ISU student Robert Dunn is challenging a university harassment policy that FIRE has given a “red light” rating. The ISU harassment policy states, in part, that “this policy may cover those activities which, although not severe, persistent, or pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of harassment, are unacceptable and not tolerated in an educational or work environment.” The Supreme Court has defined student-on-student harassment as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” Speech that does not rise to that standard is protected under the First Amendment, and not punishable at a public university like ISU, unless it were to fall under another one of the narrow categories of unprotected speech.

The complaint further alleges that ISU requires students to take an online anti-harassment training course and that at the end of the course students must certify:

By recording my acceptance below, I, [Student’s Name], acknowledge that I have received training regarding Iowa State University’s SaVE Act policy and I certify that I have read, understood and will comply with the SaVE Act policy. [Emphasis added.]

The SaVE Act policy cited in the complaint incorporates the red light harassment policy noted above.

Dunn alleges in the complaint that he could not complete the course because he would not agree to certify that he would comply with a university policy that violates his free speech rights. When Dunn inquired as to what would happen if he did not complete the course, an employee within ISU’s Office of Equal Opportunity purportedly told him that a “hold” would be placed on his graduation records. The employee also allegedly told Dunn that failure to complete the course could lead to his name being placed on a list of students for “review” by the dean of students.

Dunn’s lawsuit comes while FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project’s challenge to ISU’s censorship of the campus chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on the issue of qualified immunity. We hope both cases end with a result protecting student free speech rights.         

FIRE will be sure to keep readers updated on both fronts.

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