Iowa’s universities need to learn important lesson about free speech

July 21, 2021 8:00 am

The Old Capitol is a landmark at the University of Iowa and part of the official university logo. (Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)

In recent years, Republicans and Democrats in the Iowa Legislature often agree on little.

But they were nearly unanimous this spring in supporting an important piece of legislation — a bill requiring faculty and administrators at the state universities to go through training about the First Amendment and the rights it contains.

Anyone skeptical of the need for the new law received a wake-up call last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis handed down a decision against the University of Iowa.

The decision should embarrass and anger Iowans.

In a blistering 3-0 ruling, the court said university administrators engaged in clear discrimination against a student religious group based solely on the views of the organization and its leaders.

“What the university did here was clearly unconstitutional,” the judges wrote. “It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the [university’s] human rights policy — while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions they presumably supported.”

The court went on: “Of course, the university has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination. But it served that compelling interest by picking and choosing what kind of discrimination was okay. Basically, some [student organizations] at the University of Iowa may discriminate in selecting their leaders and members, but others, mostly religious, may not.”

The case involves a student group called InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. Membership is open to all students, but its leaders must affirm their belief in “the basic biblical truths of Christianity.”

For more than 25 years, that was not a problem. But in 2018, the university’s coordinator for student organizations accused InterVarsity of violating the school’s human rights policy. The school responded by taking away the organization’s status as a registered student group.

That prevented InterVarsity from meeting in campus buildings, using the university trademarks and receiving money from the school. The organization sued the university in 2018 for violating the group’s First Amendment rights to select its own leaders.

This was not the first case of the University of Iowa taking a different approach with one student group and taking a different approach with other groups.

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

In 2017, the university removed another campus religious organization from the list of registered student groups. Officials acted because the group, Business Leaders in Christ, prevented an openly gay member from becoming a leader when he refused to affirm the organization’s belief that same-sex relationships are contrary to the Bible’s teachings.

Business Leaders in Christ sued the university for selectively enforcing its human rights policy. violating their free speech, free association and free exercise of religion rights.

A federal judge agreed, noting that other student organizations in Iowa City are allowed to restrict their membership and leadership based on people’s gender, ethnicity or ideology. For example, men cannot join a singing group called the Hawkapellas.

After the court decision in the Business Leaders case, the university began reexamining student organizations. That process led to InterVarsity’s status as an approved student group ending.

But the appeals court wrote the reexamination basically ended after the university finished with religious groups. Among the organizations that escaped scrutiny were Muslim groups, ethnic groups, political groups, and fraternities and sororities.

The appeals court said, “The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or the perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.”

Interestingly, one organization allowed to continue as a recognized student group was LoveWorks, which requires members and leaders to sign a “gay-affirming statement of Christian faith.” The group was started by the student whose complaint against Business Leaders in Christ led to the university’s sanctions.

The appeals court said last week: “Despite that requirement — which violates the human rights policy just as much as InterVarsity’s — the university did nothing. We are hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination.

“The university’s choice to selectively apply the human rights policy against InterVarsity suggests a preference for certain viewpoints — like those of LoveWorks — over InterVarsity’s.”

The focus of the appeals court should not be construed as one of liberal vs. conservative.

In 2014, two student leaders of the Iowa State University chapter of NORML, short for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, sued the Ames school for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit resulted from a decision by ISU President Steven Leath and three administrators to block the group from printing T-shirts with Cy, the school mascot, and the message, “Freedom is NORML at ISU.”

Leath reacted after Gov. Terry Branstad and Republicans in the Legislature expressed concern about the pro-marijuana message.

A federal judge in Des Moines, and the Court of Appeals in St. Louis, both concluded in 2016 and 2017 that the university could not deviate from its normal trademark approval process and discriminate against the NORML students based on their political views.

It is worth noting the court decisions in the ISU case came several months before University of Iowa administrators set in motion the events that ended with last week’s Court of Appeals ruling.

It is almost as if those officials in Iowa City might have avoided the public embarrassment and humiliating lecture from the judges if they had paid closer attention to what the First Amendment is about.

If they have not learned that by now, they surely will during the training the Legislature ordered.

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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected].