Standing up for free speech (unless it’s about white privilege or implicit bias)

A man walks in front of a Black Lives Matter flag in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Clay Banks via Unsplash)

Sales of dandruff shampoo should be spiking in Iowa after all the head-scratching over the latest adventures of the Iowa Legislature.

There’s been a lot to puzzle over. Just last week, the Legislature gave final approval to a bill to make it legal for landlords in three Iowa cities to kick poor people out of their homes because they use federal housing vouchers. The Iowa House stayed up half the night on Wednesday to eliminate permit requirements to buy or carry a handgun, right after approving a broad liability shield for the gun industry. And the allegedly pro-business Iowa Senate Republicans voted to turn their backs on a growing big-tech development sector in the state in the name of making a point about social media “censorship.”

But based on the online reaction, what really cramped people’s brains was the Iowa House Republicans’ decision to pass back-to-back bills on Tuesday dealing with free speech and diversity training. The first bill required training on free speech and the First Amendment in K-12 and post-secondary schools. The second defined 10 “divisive concepts” that would be forbidden from being taught in diversity training programs at any level of government.

“It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen,” one person responded on Twitter, quoting the opening lines to George Orwell’s novel, “1984.”


“The Iowa House must have pretty good ball bearings in their necks to swivel around like that: so smoove and effortless,” another remarked.


The decision to run these two bills on the same day was trumped by Republicans in the Iowa Senate, who combined both First Amendment training and subjects that may not be taught into the very same bill. I can only imagine the discourse in the GOP party caucus: “Hold my beer!”

Seriously, though, anyone who wants some insight into why Republicans would try to scrub certain topics from government diversity training should get a six-pack and watch the debate on House File 802. Or maybe a case. It’s a long debate. The video starts here and continues here after Democrats’ hour-long punishment caucus that followed a lengthy screed on Marxism by Rep. Sandy Salmon.

Confusion and more confusion: Much of the four-and-a-half-hour debate consisted of Democrats raising concerns about topics that they believe the bill prohibits from discussion during any type of government diversity training program. The bill lists 10 forbidden “divisive” concepts that may not be “taught” during training sessions. The controversial ones are those that opponents said would outlaw discussion of concepts related to white privilege, implicit bias, systemic racism and reparations for slavery.

Democrats kept asking how it could be possible to have diversity training without talking about implicit or systemic bias.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said GOP lawmakers say they want freedom of speech and a discussion of alternative points of view, but then they try to stifle one perspective.  “We can’t have it both ways,” he said.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, the bill’s floor manager and main architect, kept responding that the bill would not prohibit discussions about issues related to racism, privilege or bias. “This does not prohibit discussing divisive concepts as part of a larger course of academic instruction,” he said. “So my point here, my belief about this bill, is that we’re saying you cannot teach these divisive concepts as part of training to employees or to students as facts without having a larger discussion. …  I think we can continue to have these robust discussions. And I think we have to have these robust discussions. I think we can do that without scapegoating.”

An observation: If a lawmaker has to spend most of a debate trying to correct what he considers misunderstanding or misperception about what the bill actually says, he should rewrite the bill. The people who will be expected to obey this law will not understand it and neither will the courts, where the bill will inevitably end up. This matters because the likely response to confusion will be to pull the plug on diversity training entirely. And maybe that’s the point.

Martin Luther King Jr., Black friends and leather pants: Republican supporters of the bill took turns selectively quoting Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech and telling “See, I am not a racist” stories about their Black friends and socially conscious family members.

The highlight was a disclosure from Holt that he was a “huge” fan of Michael Jackson in the 1980s: “But I might have actually bought a pair of leather pants in the middle ’80s that looked a lot like what Michael Jackson wore, and I wore it one time, my wife laughed at me and I never wore ’em again,” he said.

Reverse racism and Kanye West:  Count on Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, to just blurt it out:

“I do believe the term ‘white privilege’ is racist on its face,” he said. “I believe when the term ‘white privilege is used,’ that does judge me based on the color of my skin, just as Dr. Martin Luther King advised people not to do, so it is a term that I think is just very incomplete and woefully inadequate to accurately describe what we’re seeing in society.”

Shipley then went on to perpetuate a racial stereotype about absent Black fathers and held up Kanye West as someone who was unfairly persecuted for doing likewise. But I digress.

The reverse racism claims are the crux of this whole debate. Republican supporters of this legislation seem eager to protect white people from feeling attacked or “scapegoated.” They don’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable about the fact many white people have, for centuries, actively subjugated Black and Brown people and that open racism made a resurgence during the Trump administration. They don’t want to think about how their self-images as “not a racist” may not stand up to scrutiny of their unconscious biases. They don’t want to talk about how many white Americans look the other way while systems of society continue to disadvantage people of color. And some would prefer that the rest of us just shut up about it, already.

I happen to believe discussions about any “divisive concept” are likely to be more productive without putting people on the defensive and accusing them of something terrible. I’d like to think that’s at the heart of what Holt was trying to convey. Instead, this bill plays as the all-powerful Republicans reaching down to muzzle teaching about racism and sexism while displaying their hypocrisy about freedom of speech.