Campus free-speech bill heads to Iowa governor’s desk

A bill which aims to protect free speech on college campuses and address rules around student groups passed through the Iowa House.


Emily Wangen

The Iowa Legislature gaveled in Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 to start the 2019 legislative session. Top issues Republican leadership and area legislators have identified include reducing taxes and government oversight, mental health, and felon-voting reform.

Caleb McCullough, News Reporter

A bill addressing free speech on college campuses passed the Iowa House on Thursday afternoon on a 52-44 vote.

The bill would designate most outdoor areas of community colleges and state universities as “public forums,” allowing all expression protected under the First Amendment rather than designating “free-speech zones” on college campuses. 

The Iowa Senate passed the bill on Monday on a 35-11 vote. The bill will now head to the governor’s desk after the House passed the bill.

The major point of contention about the bill is in a section on student groups that some lawmakers say allows discrimination. 

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The bill comes on the heels of a district-court judge ruling that the University of Iowa had not equally applied its human-rights policy to Business Leaders in Christ, a faith-based student organization, after the UI revoked its registered-group status for denying a leadership position to a gay student.

The bill says, “a public institution of higher education shall not deny any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization’s requirement that the leaders of the student organization affirm or agree to and support the student organization’s beliefs, as those beliefs are interpreted and applied by the organization, and to further the student organization’s mission.” 

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Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, introduced an amendment that would remove the section about student organizations, which the House rejected on a 52-45 vote.

Wolfe said the section would legalize bias and allow student groups to discriminate against protected classes when choosing leaders for their organization.

“The bill as it is written is insulting,” Wolfe said. “It is discriminatory on its face, and I would ask that this body reject discrimination.” 

Proponents of the bill rejected the idea that the bill is discriminatory, saying the bill protects speech and protects students from religious discrimination. 

Rep. Dustin Hite, R-Oskaloosa, said the bill would not open a loophole for student organizations to discriminate, and it preserves organizations’ rights to determine their own leaders.

“It ensures that [students] have free speech,” he said. “It ensures that they are able to join the organizations they want, and that those organizations can set their own rules.” 

The state Board of Regents is registered as undecided on the bill, signaling the governing board has some interest in the bill but has not registered a position on it.

“Our public universities are places where all viewpoints should and can be heard and respected,” regent spokesman Josh Lehman said in an email to The Daily Iowan. “This has been a long-standing core principle of institutions of higher learning, and the Board of Regents fully supports the free expression of ideas on our campuses.