Iowa Senate approves bill to regulate DEI training and K-12 schools and public colleges

The Iowa Senate approved a bill on Monday that will prohibit certain types of diversity, equity, and inclusion training and public education institutions. The bill includes similar language to an executive order from former President Trump.


Tate Hildyard

University students from the dental college marched to the College of Dentistry to protest unaddressed issues regarding the treatment of minority students on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Tate Hildyard/ The Daily Iowan)

Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor

The Iowa Senate approved a bill on Monday that would prohibit certain types of diversity, equity, and inclusion training at public education institutions, as well as punish university faculty members who are found to be suppressing a student’s free speech right.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, introduced Senate File 478 with the purpose of protecting freedom of political speech at K-12 schools and college campuses. Republicans in the Legislature have grown increasingly concerned with freedom of speech on college campuses, with some claiming that conservative voices are being silenced.

“Mr. President, you will hear that this bill is racist, sexist, homophobic — it is not,” Sinclair said during a Modnay floor debate.

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, this bill has similar language to an executive order from former President Donald Trump that aimed to make education more “patriotic” by promoting DEI training that did not acknowledge systemic racism.

Senate File 478, which was passed 33 to 14 with three Republicans absent, says that public schools and outside contractors cannot facilitate DEI training that promotes divisive concepts. Some of the divisive concepts listed in the bill include the concept that Iowa is fundamentally racist or sexist or that one should feel psychological distress on account of one’s race or sex.

The bill would also require public colleges and universities to publish its policies on how the institution enforces protection of free speech, a recommendation that a Board of Regents freedom of speech committee also published.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriot, D-Windsor Heights, said during the floor debate on Monday that the language in the bill is unclear, and that it only mentions free speech in the context of race or sex, leaving out other protected classes like religion and sexual orientation. 

“Things in the bill lack clarity — ‘Iowa is fundamentally racist or sexist’ … What does fundamentally mean? It’s not clear,” Trone Garriot said.

The floor debate stretched beyond SF 478, and lawmakers brought up issues relating to legislation to eliminate faculty tenure, a bill that will shorten Iowa’s early voting period, and a bill that would poll university faculty of their political affiliation. 

Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, said that he was “viciously attacked” after he introduced the bill to poll university faculty of their political affiliations, and that measures like that are necessary in ensuring a university is fostering free speech.

Carlin also brought up an incident with a University of Iowa College of Dentistry student who faced possible disciplinary action after he hit “reply all” on a college-wide email that condemned Trump’s executive order on DEI training. Michael Brase, the dentistry student, then reached out to Republican legislators for help, and his hearing with the dean was canceled. 

“Free speech rights on our campuses in Iowa are indeed being squelched; are indeed being discouraged,” Carlin said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, voted in support of the bill, but called out the bill on eliminating tenure and the “voter suppression bill,” saying Republicans are a part of a “nationwide conspiracy of sore losers.”

“Today Senate Republicans bring forth this bill in courageous defense of the rights of the people they agree with, what bravery Mr. President, what bravery,” Qurimbach said. “The real test of your support of the First Amendment is how you stand up for the rights of people with whom you disagree.”

Qurimbach said he supports measures in the bill that would require universities and community colleges to develop training materials to make sure people in leadership positions are knowledgeable of First Amendment issues.

The bill will now go to the Iowa House for a floor vote.

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