Iowa lawmakers focus on free speech on campuses, social media platforms

By: - February 26, 2021 3:13 pm

A member of an anti-government militia holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on Jan. 6, 2016 near Burns, Oregon. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Conservative Political Action Conference began Friday with a session called “Why the Left Hates the Bill of Rights … and We Love It.” 

The four-day annual gathering of Republican politicians and activists started Thursday in Orlando, Florida. CPAC’s agenda included five events on free speech, including a Friday speech by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called “Bill of Rights, Liberty, and Cancel Culture.” 

“Liberty is under assault, and what are we going to do? I will tell you. We will fight,” Cruz said, as a man within the crowd yelled “Freedom!”

Issues of free speech and cancel culture have become a pillar of the Republican platform, both nationwide and in Iowa. From “political correctness” to social media platforms banning politicians like former President Donald Trump, the party has identified free speech as a major issue in America.

Iowa lawmakers considered several bills this week that would introduce new free speech policies at Iowa’s universities and schools and would penalize tech companies that censor certain viewpoints. The Board of Regents also debuted a set of First Amendment policies for Iowa’s public universities.

“I would suggest that an educator in a position of authority over a child should not have the right to violate what is inherent to that child, and that is their beliefs and values and their abilities to express those,” said Iowa Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton.

Here’s what the First Amendment says

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Board of Regents adopts new free speech policies

The Board of Regents, a nine-member group that oversees Iowa’s three public universities, met Wednesday to consider recommendations to improve First Amendment protections. Among the recommendations were:

  • Require universities to include a statement on class syllabi that explicitly states that the First Amendment will be respected.
  • Reaffirm that school resources cannot be used for partisan activities.
  • Universities and upper-level administrators will not be allowed to take an “institutional position on policy matters.”
  • Universities will offer annual training on free speech to students, staff and faculty.

The board also agreed to establish a permanent Free Speech Committee to oversee the implementation of the policies and to review any complaints.

“Concerns that come up about free speech are addressed with passion,” board member Nancy Boettger, a former Republican state senator, said. “People care a lot about this.”

The Regents voted unanimously to approve the recommendations.

Wednesday’s meeting followed a tumultuous few months in which all three of Iowa’s public universities University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa had a free speech controversy. Although all three issues have been resolved, conversation and consequences surrounding the incidents linger. 

David Johnsen, dean of the University of Iowa College of Dentistry, announced Thursday that he will leave his position this summer, a year before he planned to step down. The dentistry school was the focus of conservative ire in October after Johnsen sent a statement denouncing a President Donald Trump executive order and then called for a disciplinary hearing against a student who publicly defended the order.

“Upon further reflection, I came to realize that the pieces are in place for me to step away a year earlier and that after more than 25 years, I am ready for change of pace,” Johnsen said in a University of Iowa press release.

Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said Thursday that it was disappointing that the Board of Regents adopted new free speech policies only after several incidents.

“I appreciate what the Regents are doing,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it took three very, very high-profile and, in my opinion, quite obvious things this year to make that happen.”

House and Senate committees consider First Amendment legislation for schools

Hite led his own free speech discussion Thursday as a House Judiciary subcommittee considered House Study Bill 237. The bill would require universities governed by the Board of Regents to educate teachers, faculty, administrators and other staff on First Amendment protections. Students would also be required to do annual training on free speech.

“There are circumstances where it is difficult to determine what free speech protects and what free speech doesn’t,” Hite said. “There are also times where it’s just blatantly obvious.”

The bill would also restrict the use of school funds toward partisan activities and would prohibit upper-level administrators from making public statements about policy matters. For K-12 school districts, it would require the board of directors to create free speech policies and a fair complaints process. The bill passed subcommittee in a 2-1 vote, with Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, voting against.

Lobbyists from the Iowa Association of School Boards and LGBTQ group OneIowa said Thursday that the House version of the bill was preferable to the Senate version, Senate File 478, proposed by Sinclair.

That version goes deeper into what First Amendment training must include, specifying that training should not teach that any race or sex is superior, that Iowa is inherently racist or sexist, or that any individual is racist, sexist or oppressive due to their identity.

It mirrors a Trump executive order from September the same one that Johnsen denounced at the University of Iowa. That order defined “divisive concepts” using near-identical language to SF 478. An amendment to the bill also added references to the Iowa Civil Rights Act so all protected classes, including sexuality, age, gender identity and disability, are included in addition to race and sex. Both public universities and school districts would be prohibited from teaching the divisive concepts outlined in the bill.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach of Ames was the only Democrat on the committee to support the legislation.

“I can’t imagine anyone of good conscience saying that any of the things prohibited here should be allowed as part of the training of campus police or university administrators or people advising student clubs,” he said.

The bill passed the education committee by an 11-4 vote.

Two bills to take on technology censorship

Free speech legislation also went beyond campus this week, as some lawmakers in the House and Senate proposed bills to prohibit social media companies from censoring certain viewpoints. 

On Wednesday, a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, considered Senate File 402. The bill would ban state and local government contracts with any tech company that wrongfully censors online content.

“It’s shameful,” Chapman said. “These liberal executives out of the Silicon Valley are not going to control what Iowans hear, what they see, and they aren’t going to censor them.” 

Critics of the legislation argued that such measures would scare away tech companies from Iowa and could disrupt operations at schools and universities that utilize certain programs.

The bill advanced by a 2-1 subcommittee vote.

On Thursday, a House subcommittee considered a different bill, House File 633. The legislation would prohibit social media companies from censoring “constitutionally protected speech.” That includes restricting or limiting any content, or blocking certain users.

If a social media company does censor speech, it would have 30 days to send a notice to the user about why the speech was censored. The Attorney General would be responsible for prosecuting companies that censor protected speech.

Lynn Hicks, chief of staff at the Iowa Attorney General’s office, noted that in cases of censorship by tech companies, courts have widely found that private social media companies can censor speech on their own platforms.

Iowa already has lawsuits against Google and Facebook, Hicks said, cases which have evolved over multiple years and require dozens of attorneys and staff members to run. Under the new bill, the attorney general may have to launch lawsuits against several more companies.

“We’re looking at some considerable challenges, if this goes into law,” Hicks said.

Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, said the law on social media networks was evolving as online communication became all-encompassing. He used Facebook as an example: users who advocated for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, he said, were wrongfully censored on the platform.

“That suppression of a therapy that was used in my metro area … this is the danger of a monopoly that has subsumed a public square, or worse yet, a state actor that is now absolutely quashing medical data that is truthful and scientifically proven,” Jacobsen said.

There is a lack of consensus in the medical community about the use of the drug for COVID-19.  It’s allowed in some states but was not recommended as of September 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Speaker of the House Pat Grassley told reporters Thursday he is interested in pursuing regulations for online censorship, although he did not endorse a specific bill.

“The bills that exist today, I think, will be the basis of what is something we would like to do,” he said.

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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.