Editorial | Iowa Republicans’ free speech platform is hypocritical

Iowa Republicans protect free speech at the higher education level, but attempt censor K-12 schools’ curriculum


Jerod Ringwald

Photo illustration.

DI Editorial Board

By now, you’ve probably heard of, and possibly already taken, the new Free Speech Training the University of Iowa rolled out at the start of this month.

The training is one of several new measures required by Iowa law after the Republican state Legislature upped the mantle of free speech last year. The state Board of Regents has been promoting education and events this year about free expression and the First Amendment.

“The first step in creating a campus environment where different viewpoints are welcome is to understand the basic principles of First Amendment rights to free expression,” UI President Barbara Wilson wrote to the campus community in an email announcing the training module.

Multiple instances on campus spurred Iowa lawmakers to create the policies that required this training. Last year, Republican lawmakers called out the UI College of Dentistry when a student felt the college suppressed his free speech after he sent a “reply all” email that disagreed with the college’s stance condemning President Donald Trump’s executive order to halt Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training in 2020.

This year, we’ve seen three University of Iowa College of Public Health professors punished for standing up for a student after a classmate made homophobic remarks believed to be directed toward them. An investigation found ​​the professors had violated the university’s ethics policy for threatening disciplinary action against the graduate student who had made the remarks.

As journalists, we are the first to stand up for First Amendment rights, as we saw most recently after Iowa lawmakers banned journalists from the Iowa Senate floor ahead of the January legislative session. The words of the First Amendment are plastered on the wall of our newsroom.

Our concern is that Republicans in the Statehouse are taking a “free speech for me, but not for thee,” approach to the First Amendment.

Last year, Republicans pushed hard to censor the speech of university professors and teachers, and they’re continuing that crusade with a focus on lower education this year. Last year’s efforts included an attempt to ban the 1619 project in U.S. history classes, and a new law that prohibited “divisive concepts” from diversity training and education, including teaching that the U.S. is fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.

While the law doesn’t specifically list critical race theory or its actual tenants, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds publicly touted it as a ban on “critical race theory” (though her understanding of that discipline may need some work).

This year, the same party that fought to preserve university campuses as a bastion of free expression are trying to rid public K-12 schools of those same rights. Republicans are taking the playbook of the GOP’s culture war, and pushing to ban certain books they deem “obscene” from school curriculum. The books listed by the bill’s most fervent supporters include The Hate u Give and All Boys Aren’t Blue, books that deal with topics of race and LGBTQ+ sexuality in complex ways.

Last year, Jake Chapman, R-Adel, Iowa Senate President, went as far as to promise legislation that would jail teachers for including this material. Currently, Senate Republicans are pushing for a bill that would allow parents to sue districts over books they believe are obscene.

At the surface level, Iowa Republicans’ claims to value free speech by requiring training in higher-education institutions seem legit. But when looking at the past, with attempts to censor how universities handle diversity, and current pushes to censor classroom material, it’s clear they have a different agenda.

In reality, Iowa Republicans are attempting to control speech that they don’t agree with. If the party solely cared about upholding the value of the First Amendment, they would’ve extended the same rights to K-12 schools and allowed them to control their curriculum’s content.

The hypocrisy from the Iowa GOP is as clear as day. How can a party that supposedly values free speech require training at higher-education institutions, yet censor content in diversity curriculum and attempt to take books off the shelves?

Editorials reflect the majority opinion of the DI Editorial Board and not the opinion of the publisher, Student Publications Inc., or the University of Iowa.

Editorial board members are Caleb McCullough, Rylee Wilson, Josie Fischels, Hannah Pinski, Sophia Meador, and Yassie Buchanan.