There is a significant disconnect right now at the University of Northern Iowa.
We think of colleges and universities as places where people come together to learn, to discuss and deliberate ideas, and to strengthen their thinking skills.
But that has not occurred this month at Iowa’s third-largest university.
The UNI student government refused last week to grant official student organization status to a group of UNI students who want to establish a local chapter of Students for Life, a national organization that opposes abortion.
The student-run judicial system upheld that “no” decision last week, too.
The rationale by Northern Iowa Student Government and by the student court goes to the heart of the disappointing situation that exists at UNI and at too many other public colleges and universities these days. (I say “public,” because the First Amendment’s protections do not have the same applicability on the campuses of private colleges and universities.)
Student senators who voted against the Students for Life request did so for a variety of reasons — and none of those reasons are adequate justification for turning their backs on students whose views do not match the views of many other students.
Some senators were turned off by what they called the “hateful rhetoric” the national organization has used. Others objected to “troubling beliefs” of the national organization. Still others were bothered by the message student senators would be sending to UNI students with a decision to grant official status to Students for Life.
There is much more at stake in this dispute than simply being able to call itself an official student organization. Official status would allow the group to apply for student fee money. The group would be able to post notices on campus bulletin boards, obtain low-cost copying services and use of campus rooms for group meetings and events.
Sophia Schuster, a history major at UNI, is among the organizers of Students for Life. She told the campus newspaper, the Northern Iowan: “I want to create a pro-life voice on this campus. College campuses are already big abortion hotspots, and I just wanted to be a voice.”
The organization’s constitution states, “Members seek to promote respect for life at UNI and in a local, state and national level, to educate on life issues, to help those in need so that life is a promising choice, and to work with others who share common goals.”
Senator Esha Jayswal said members of Students for Life should be entitled to express their views on campus, just as other student organizations are. “All university students have the right to express their opinions and form groups to share those opinions,” Jayswal told the Northern Iowan.
Another senator, Matthew Barton, said, “I think it’s just very dangerous to try and silence a group in general.”
Northern Iowa Student Government is supposed to register “any student organization formed in good faith for a lawful purpose,” according to university policies.
There already are scores of registered student organizations on the Cedar Falls campus, ranging from the Deaf Cultural Experience to the Trombone Society. There also are groups called Panthers for Pete, UNI for Bernie, Young Democratic Socialists of America and UNI Proud, a group for LGBTQ students.
But the student court ruled last week that the decision denying official status to Students for Life was correct, because that group “has the potential to create a hostile environment on the university campus” by violating a UNI policy that prohibits “discriminatory harassment.”
The court’s decision said Students for Life is “lacking in evidence of being an equitable, just, and welcoming student organization for our students and community.”
The future of the group is still up in the air, however. Organizers have asked UNI President Mark Nook to intercede on their behalf. The school already has issued a statement expressing UNI’s commitment to students’ First Amendment rights.
This is not the first time student views have gotten crosswise with faculty or administrators at Iowa’s state universities.
An Iowa State University professor said this summer that students in her class would not be allowed to submit writing assignments in which they take certain positions — such as arguing against gay marriage, abortion rights or Black Lives Matter.
In 2018, Iowa State paid $150,000 in damages, plus $193,000 in legal fees, after a student group supporting legalizing marijuana sued the school when administrators tried to ban the group from using the school’s cardinal mascot on the group’s t-shirts.
Last year, a federal judge ruled the University of Iowa could not take away a student religious group’s status as an official student organization because of the group’s requirement that its leaders must agree to not have sex outside of marriage and not engage in same-sex romantic relationships.
The upshot of all of these cases is quite simple, really.
The First Amendment protects free speech at public colleges and universities, no matter how offensive the content of that speech might be to some people. There’s no place for government censorship. And free speech does not exist just for content we agree with.