Campus free-speech bill passes Iowa Senate

A bill which aims to eliminate free-speech zones and changes rules for how universities regulate student organization passed a major hurdle in the legislative process


Ben Allan Smith

The Capitol building in Des Moines is pictured on Saturday, April 29, 2018.

Emily Wangen, Politics Reporter

The Iowa Senate on Monday afternoon passed a bill addressing free-speech rights on college campuses on a 35-11 vote.

Under Senate File 274, public higher-education institutions could no longer designate “free-speech zones” on campus. Instead, all outdoor areas on campuses would be deemed as “public forums,” with some exceptions.

The bill also would not allow institutions to deny benefits to student groups with viewpoints based on religious grounds or others protected by the First Amendment when the organization requires leaders to support the group’s core beliefs.

The bill passage comes in the wake of a judge ruling the University of Iowa did not correctly respond to a complaint that Business Leaders in Christ, a registered student organization, violated the UI Human Rights Policy by denying a leadership position for a member who was gay.

The UI deregistered the organization in 2017, and a U.S. District Court judge stated that in doing so, the UI didn’t enforce its Human Rights Policy consistently.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, introduced an amendment to remove the section of the bill regarding student organizations, Section 3. The amendment failed on a 30-16 vote.

“This subsection, I don’t necessarily believe it will intentionally, but I believe it will create a loophole that will allow discrimination against students at our state schools that is either historically or even contemporaneously marginalized,” Wahls said.

RELATED: Free speech bill moving through Iowa Senate following court ruling against UI

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, contended that the student organizations are funded from fees paid by students, and students funded other organizations that may differ from their beliefs.

“What makes this fair is it allows religious students to organize their clubs on an equal basis as everyone else,” she said. “As a matter of practical necessity, this must include leaders that support the goal of the club, the clubs’ mission.”

After passing the Senate, the bill will need the Iowa House’s approval and the governor’s signature before it becomes law.

The state Board of Regents, which oversees the three public universities in the state — Iowa State University, the UI, and the University of Northern Iowa — is registered as undecided on the bill, and the regents are monitoring the bill’s language as it moves through the Legislature, said regent spokesman Josh Lehman in an email to the DI.

“The right to express differing views on any issue is paramount, and the board and our universities do and will continue to support this right,” Lehman wrote.

Tyler Raygor, the deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity — Iowa, said the organization favors the bill, contending that it would eliminate possible confusion regarding university free-speech zones.

“The founders knew that the solution to speech that you don’t like is more speech,” Raygor said.

The Hale Group, One Iowa Action, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa have lobbied against the bill.

While the ACLU supports the vision of the legislation, Executive Director Mark Stringer said in an email to the DI, the group has concerns relating to Section 3 of the bill concerning student organizations.

“In light of the pernicious history of discrimination in education and related opportunities in this country, universities should continue to have the right to refuse to lend their sponsorship and resources, including funding, to groups that exclude other members of the university community,” Stringer wrote.

According to a fiscal note published by the Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan state agency, the bill could lead to future exposure to lawsuits for community colleges and state universities. However, there is no way to estimate a number of complaints or legal settlement costs from future litigation.

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