Good goal, bad bill: Legislation to protect ‘political ideology’ is deeply flawed

he State Capital of Iowa is reflected by the Henry A Wallace Building
The State Capitol of Iowa is reflected by the Henry A Wallace Building on Nov, 6, 2018 in Des Moines. (Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images)

Should the Republican Party of Iowa be prohibited from discrimination against Democrats in its hiring practices? Should the NRA’s local chapter be forced to hire a gun-control advocate who otherwise qualifies for the job? Should presidential candidates running in the Iowa caucuses run afoul of the law if they insist on hiring only staff who support their political philosophy?

If you said yes to those questions, there’s a bill for you in the Iowa Statehouse. House Study Bill 67, which has already advanced through a subcommittee, would include “political ideology” as a protected class under the state Civil Rights Act.

The legislation doesn’t define “political ideology,” nor does it specify any exceptions for organizations that are, by their nature, political. The Civil Rights Act identifies protected classes against discrimination in employment, wages, public accommodations, housing, education and credit practices. The current protected classes are: age, race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, disability, marital status and familial status.

Believe it or not, I think the bill’s supporters have a laudable goal: Protecting people who are subjected to harassment or worse for expressing their political views.

State Rep. Steven Holt is a Republican from Denison. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said in an interview he “doesn’t necessarily disagree” that there are problems with the bill. He said he didn’t know if the legislation would move forward. He described it as a way to start a conversation about what he sees as a growing level of intolerance toward people who exercise their rights to free speech.

“I don’t care if it’s liberal or conservative speech, I could care less — people have a right to speak their mind without, you know, afraid being afraid of being fired or thrown out of a school or what have you,” he said.

I have no problem believing that, because Holt is one of the most forthright and plain-spoken lawmakers I’ve encountered over decades of writing about the Legislature. He spoke during a subcommittee meeting of a “cancel culture” driven by “social media giants, big tech and others” and aimed at trying to silence or “destroy” those who disagree with their philosophy.

“Even now we have some political leaders and media pundits that have spoken of reprogramming or re-educating Trump supporters and others they do not agree with,” Holt said.

I’ve seen the cancel culture at work in my profession, and it is indeed alarming. The case that spurred Holt’s proposal — a University of Iowa dental student who was threatened with disciplinary action for expressing his views in a college-wide email — seems worthy of attention.

“We’re encouraged when anybody in government and in this case, the Legislature, really does look for ways to protect the rights of people to express themselves,” Pete McRoberts, an attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, said.

But, he said, the Iowa Civil Rights Act “is specifically designed to help people who have been the subject of discrimination, a long history of discrimination, for things that are largely beyond their control, for which the ordinary political system doesn’t help them.”

This bill wouldn’t help, either. Lawmakers would once again be leaving it up to courts — the “unelected judges” that Holt and other Republicans have been railing against — to even figure out what “political ideology” means.

There are other ways lawmakers could address the campus free-speech issues Holt seems most concerned about. I’d start by strongly encouraging state universities to put their faculty and administrators through a short course on the First Amendment and freedom of expression.

As much as I respect both Holt and his goal, this is the wrong year to be running deeply flawed legislation just to make a point. Iowa is facing far too many urgent problems related to COVID-19 and its economic fallout that lawmakers can actually do something do fix.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.