Capital Clicks

Iowa Senate passes free-speech bill that restricts ‘divisive concepts’ in school training

By: - March 8, 2021 7:10 pm

The University of Northern Iowa campus. (Photo by University of Northern Iowa)

The Iowa Senate passed a bill Monday that would require First Amendment training for public colleges. The bill also defines certain “divisive” concepts that may not be taught in schools, centered around the idea that no individual is inherently racist or sexist.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, led floor debate on Senate File 478. She said it was important to focus on free speech in education and provide penalties for educators who constrict the free speech of their students.

“Those folks have a unique and distinct authority over the students in their care,” she said.

The Senate voted 33-14 to pass the legislation. The House will need to consider the proposal next.

First Amendment training

Republican lawmakers returned to a common refrain for the 2021 session: free speech on college campuses.

Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, said he was invited to speak to a group at Iowa State University. The university initially tried to prevent him from speaking due to his active candidacy for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s seat, he said. Several hours later, he was allowed to speak.

“Free speech rights of our students on our campuses in Iowa are indeed being squelched,” Carlin said.

He said that some students had told him they feared they would get worse grades due to their political viewpoints.

The bill would require Iowa’s colleges and K-12 schools to develop First Amendment training for teachers and staff. Institutions must also publicize their free speech policies to ensure students know and understand their rights. The Board of Regents created a set of new First Amendment policies that would require Iowa’s public universities to add a statement to every class syllabus that states explicitly the student’s right to free speech.

If faculty wrongfully restricted the speech of a student, they would face disciplinary action under the bill.

Divisive concepts prohibited from training

The bill also defined “divisive concepts” that would be prohibited from any mandatory training for school staff and students. Some of these concepts touch on the idea of systematic prejudice or unconscious biases, including:

  • “That an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” and
  • “That the state of Iowa is fundamentally racist or sexist.”

The legislation specifies that these concepts would not be prohibited in the “larger course of academic instruction,” just that it could not be included in mandatory trainings.

Sen. Sarah Trone-Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said she supported training on the First Amendment, but did not support the addition of the “divisive concepts” language. She raised concerns that the law was not clear enough about what would qualify as a violation of the law. Why do the divisive concepts deal only with race or sex? Does the intent of the speaker matter, or does the interpretation of the speech?

She said that the law could cause educators to self-censor and avoid important but sensitive topics like sexism or racism.

“They will give a wide berth to anything potentially controversial. They will censor themselves …,” Trone-Garriott said. “This legislation will actually have a chilling effect on free speech in educational institutions.”

Sinclair responded that there was already a chilling effect at Iowa’s schools against conservative speech.

“I would suggest to you that we’re already being chilled in our conversations,” she 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.