Free speech at Iowa colleges: Lawmakers review three 2020 incidents

By: - February 3, 2021 11:31 am

Iowa State University’s Memorial Union is a hub of campus activity. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Free speech on college campuses is once again under the microscope of Iowa’s Republican lawmakers. 

Administrators from Iowa’s three regent universities met with a committee of lawmakers Tuesday to discuss free speech failings on campus. In each case, a conservative student or group felt their free speech rights were limited by fellow students, professors or university policy. 

Lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee spent an hour and a half questioning administrators about what went wrong and how the school planned to become more welcoming of all political viewpoints. 

“Iowa State, UNI and the University of Iowa: You are here for Iowans. Iowa is not here for you,” Government Oversight Chair Rep. Holly Brink, R-Oskaloosa, said. “We will continue to protect and make sure that things are going right for the students in the next generation in this state.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the latest installment in an ongoing conversation about campus free speech. In addition to meeting with a conservative University of Iowa student, a subcommittee of House lawmakers in January advanced a proposed bill which would add “political ideology” to the Iowa Civil Rights Act, making it a protected class alongside race, gender and religion.

“The woke culture philosophy of intolerance and hatred, of demanding all must agree, I think is profoundly dangerous and disturbing in our country,” Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison said in the January subcommittee meeting. “That is not how our country has been able to be peaceful since 1776.”

Free speech on college campuses has been a hot button issue across the U.S. for several years.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit which studies the freedom of expression at various colleges, released a ranking of 55 colleges by “open climates for free speech.” University of Iowa, the only Iowa school on the list, ranked 19th.

FIRE also tracked the number of controversial speakers who were disinvited from campus events following student protests. Twenty-one speakers generated protests at American universities in 2020. Eight speakers, including Ivanka Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, were disinvited from speaking. None involved Iowa universities.

Here is a look at the three cases lawmakers discussed this week:

University of Iowa: Dentistry dean apologizes for would-be disciplinary hearing

Dean David Johnsen of the University of Iowa College of Dentistry, sent a collegewide email in October condemning an executive order from President Donald Trump. 

University of Iowa Dentistry student Michael Brase replied to all, defending the executive order. After a brief email exchange, Brase received a summons for a disciplinary hearing. He contacted Republican lawmakers who spoke to university administrators. The college canceled the hearing.

“Anybody who’s conservative has to be afraid to voice their opinions, and anybody who is on the liberal side of the fence can speak it out in broad daylight, they can make things up about people with no fear of any repercussions,” Brase said in a Jan. 27 hearing with the Government Oversight Committee.

Johnsen told lawmakers Tuesday that Brase was never at risk of expulsion or punishment, although he understood why Brase believed he might be.

“We do not want any of our students to have an experience that leaves them feeling unsupported or fearful, and we have failed Michael in that regard,” he said.

Johnsen told the committee that he plans to no longer send opinionated emails in an official capacity. He also intends to restructure the Collegiate Academic and Professional Performance Committee, known as the CAPP Committee.

Although Brase is not at risk of punishment by the department, discussion of the incident continues within the college. The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported that about 75 people gathered at the College of Denistry on Friday to demand that the administration address discrimination and bias within the school a movement spurred partially by the October email exchange. 

“Members of the CoD community with marginalized identities returned to clinics and classes immediately following the email chains with no time to heal or process … The authors are demanding long-term tangible and visible demonstration of support by the Administration,” a group of eight protest organizers wrote in a statement posted online

Several members of the committee confronted Johnsen about the protest. He said that he did not sanction the event and was unaware of the details ahead of time.

“I believe that at least some of the organizers at Friday’s protest were protesting the fact that a student’s First Amendment … rights weren’t punished, which I find to be not only hypocritical, but abhorrent,” Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said. 

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, asked Johnsen if the school had any plans to protect Brase from retaliation.

“This has gone on since October, and as far as I can tell, classes are going along,” Johnsen said. “If something would have happened, it probably would have happened by now.”

Iowa State University: Syllabus controversy spurs new policy

Iowa State professor Chloe Clark wrote in her August 2020 syllabus that students taking English 250 could not “choose any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (ie: no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc).”

Conservatives and free speech groups protested the syllabus, which got significant media attention. Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen said Clark was immediately disciplined. Clark cooperated, apologized to her class and changed the syllabus.

Still, Wintersteen told lawmakers she realized the university needed a “system-wide approach” to protect free speech.

“We worked with our faculty leadership at the university and developed a syllabus statement that holds up the principles of free expression and academic freedom,” Wintersteen said.

Iowa State required professors to include the statement in their syllabi beginning in the winter session.

Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson, asked Wintersteen to elaborate on how the professor was disciplined. Wintersteen responded that Clark was cooperative and quickly remedied her mistake. The university also allowed students to transfer to another section or report concerns that Clark could not adequately or fairly teach them.

“Only one student chose to transfer from the class,” Wintersteen said. “We received no other comments about unfair treatment from class members.”

Wintersteen said Clark remains employed at Iowa State.

University of Northern Iowa: Student government denies anti-abortion student group 

A group of University of Northern Iowa students requested in October to form a chapter of Students for Life of America. The student government denied the request, arguing that the anti-abortion group would create a hostile campus environment. The student Supreme Court affirmed the student government’s decision.

Soon after, University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook repealed the decision and allowed the Students for Life chapter to form.

“Universities exist to give students and all members of the University community an opportunity to wrestle with the vast diversity of ideas and opinions,” Nook said on Oct. 25. “These last few weeks provided an incredibly rich learning environment for our students, faculty, staff and many people off campus.”

Brink asked Steffoni Schmidt, UNI associate director of student life and an advisor to the student government, why she did not step in when student government representatives “went absolutely too far” in condemning the group. Schmidt said she discussed with the student council representatives what the consequences might be if they voted against the group.

“I don’t have control over the voices of the students who are within their rights … to speak their minds,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said she plans to do workshops with students to discuss complex social issues and First Amendment rights.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.