2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Board of Regents drafts free-speech policy based on new law

Proposal set this week for first of two required votes

State of Iowa Board of Regents logo
State of Iowa Board of Regents logo

IOWA CITY — Iowa’s Board of Regents this week will consider taking the first step toward adopting a new policy that explicitly prohibits its universities from denying benefits to student organizations based on their viewpoints or the groups’ requirements that leaders agree with their beliefs and views.

“Student organizations may, but are not required to, limit leadership positions to students who, upon individual inquiry, affirm that they support the student organization’s beliefs and agree to further the student organization’s mission,” according to a line from the policy the board will consider enacting.

The “freedom of expression” directive comes in response to a law Gov. Kim Reynolds signed March 27 requiring the regents to adopt a free-speech policy that takes into account grounds and facilities; campus speakers and programs; and student organizations.

Iowa’s public universities have faced a smattering of free-speech issues in recent years — from controversial speakers to use of public grounds to most recently a fight over student organization leadership at the University of Iowa.

In that case, UI administrators in 2017 deregistered the faith-based group Business Leaders in Christ — or BLinC — for barring an openly gay member from becoming one of its leaders. BLinC leadership said acting on one’s attraction for the same sex violates its viewpoints and beliefs.

The UI accused BLinC of discrimination and violating its human rights policy. But BLinC likewise accused the UI of discrimination and violating its First Amendment rights — and sued the university.

A federal court judge found the UI was unevenly enforcing its human rights policy and ordered the UI to let BLinC back on campus until it started equally enforcing its policy for all student groups. A second lawsuit against UI stemming from the same action, but involving InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, is pending.

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The Board of Regents last year opposed a similar bill in the Legislature, calling it unnecessary as the universities already have free-speech policies.

This year, several Democrats assailed the provision that allows student groups to filter members and leaders according to their beliefs. Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, for one, called it “state-sponsored discrimination.”

The board this year, however, simply stressed its commitment to academic freedom and the First Amendment.

The policy — which also bars the public universities from designating “free speech zones” — requires two readings before being enacted.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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