Board of Regents moves forward on new free speech policies for Iowa universities

By: - June 2, 2021 5:50 pm

The Board of Regents Free Speech Committee met Wednesday to discuss new first amendment training and resources for Iowa’s public universities. (Screenshot of June 2 Board of Regents meeting)

Iowa college students are going to see new training, resources and public commitments to the First Amendment when they return to school in the fall.

The Board of Regents met with university provosts and administrators Wednesday to discuss new policies to protect free speech on campus. Beginning in the upcoming academic year, all three Regents universities — Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa — will post a statement on every class syllabus affirming the school’s commitment to protecting freedom of speech. It’s a policy that began at Iowa State University in the fall of 2020, after an English professor instituted a policy that did not allow students to argue against certain social movements or initiatives, such as gay marriage or Black Lives Matter.

Iowa State Provost Jonathan Wickert said there had been “no significant issues or implementation problems” in requiring the free speech statements on class syllabi so far. University of Iowa and UNI syllabi will include the statements beginning this summer semester. The three Regents universities have also all launched new websites to guide students through free speech issues on campus. 

Ahead of the fall semester, the Regents are seeking a company to develop and provide First Amendment training for faculty, staff and students. If a third-party training can’t be developed in time, Regents counsel Aimee Claeys said, the plan would be to “pivot very quickly” and develop training using University staff and resources. 

Recent survey data show students, staff largely feel comfortable expressing themselves on campus

Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the Board of Regents, presented data from recent campus climate surveys. None of the surveys focused exclusively on campus free speech, but all asked questions about overall climate and acceptance of controversial topics.

The surveys found that students and faculty at University of Northern Iowa, the University of Iowa and Iowa State were, for the most part, satisfied with their ability to express themselves on campus without facing discrimination. However, students and staff at all three campuses also reported observing or experiencing inappropriate behavior at school.

In 2017, an Iowa State climate survey asked students, faculty and staff if they felt comfortable on campus and if they had observed behavior that created an “exclusionary, intimidating, offensive and/or hostile environment.” 

Nearly 4 in 5 respondents said they felt “comfortable” or “very comfortable” on campus. However, 30% said they had also observed offensive or exclusionary conduct. The conduct was most often related to ethnicity or racial identity, followed by gender identity and political views. 

Boon noted that feeling uncomfortable or observing offensive behavior does not necessarily mean that First Amendment rights were restricted, as some incidents may have been protected speech.

A University of Northern Iowa Survey in 2019 found that 63.2% of faculty and staff felt they were treated fairly, regardless of their political beliefs. About 7% of faculty members said they felt that students did not respect different viewpoints. 

When asked whether they regularly experience “inappropriate behaviors and comments regarding … political affiliation,” 9% of faculty and students at UNI said they do.

Finally, at the University of Iowa, 75% of faculty and staff agreed in October 2020 that the school “provides an environment for the free and open expression of ideas, opinions and beliefs.” The breakdown of opinions was almost the same across political demographics: conservative and liberal professors were equally likely to say the University supported open expression.

The student results of the University of Iowa survey conducted this past semester are not yet available. 

Regent David Barker said that it was “encouraging” that most students did not feel their speech was repressed, but that there was still work to be done.

“The First Amendment is really designed to protect uncommon or minority viewpoints, and so the fact that it’s only one in 10 or one in 20 students who feel that way does not necessarily mean that we don’t have a job to do in improving the situation,” Barker said.

Boon said that university staff will continue to plan about how to survey free speech needs on campuses.

Lawmakers took aim at Regents free speech issues in 2021 session

The changes at Iowa’s Regents universities come after a tumultuous legislative session. State Republican leaders focused extensively on free speech issues at Iowa’s colleges, ultimately citing “cancel culture” as a potential reason not to increase funding to the universities in fiscal year 2022.

All three Regents universities had high-profile free speech incidents in 2020, all of which were resolved internally. At Iowa State, the syllabus forbidding certain arguments was redacted quickly by the professor, who apologized to her students. A University of Iowa dental student was summoned for a disciplinary hearing after he argued in support of President Donald Trump on a school-wide email chain, but the hearing was called off after Republicans rallied around the student. And at the University of Northern Iowa, President Mark Nook had to overturn a student government decision in order to allow an anti-abortion student group to form.

House lawmakers met with university administrators in February to review the incidents. Later that month, the Board of Regents created a permanent Free Speech Committee and approved 10 recommendations to protect the First Amendment on Iowa’s campuses. Included in the recommendations are the syllabus statements, new websites and training, and the data collection on free speech issues.

Even so, lawmakers ended the session by passing a budget that appropriates no additional funding to Regents universities. Student leaders have spoken out against the decision as they wait for the Regents to decide whether to raise tuition for the 2021-22 school year.

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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.