DES MOINES, Iowa – Last Wednesday, an Iowa Senate subcommittee advanced SSB 1205, a bill that fortifies free speech protections in Iowa’s public school districts, community colleges, and Regent universities.
The bill primarily does six things:
- It requires First Amendment training at community colleges and Regent universities for those responsible for discipline, instruction, or administration of the campus community or overseeing student government organizations, or distributing activity fee funds. The bill also requires training for student government organizations.
- It requires community colleges and Regent universities to establish and publicize policies that prohibit institutional restrictions and penalties based on protected speech.
- It prohibits retaliation toward those who file a discrimination complaint.
- It requires public school districts, community colleges, and Regent universities to discipline faculty, including termination, who restrict the protected speech or otherwise penalize students. Those licensed by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners could also face discipline by the board.
- Student government organizations that violate campus community members’ First Amendment rights shall have their authority to manage and disburse student fees stripped for two years.
- It prohibits race or sex stereotyping as a part of diversity training at public school districts, community colleges, or Regents universities.
Keenan Crow with One Iowa, a group representing LGBTQ Iowans, opposed the bill due to the prohibition on race and sex stereotyping that he said was similar to an executive order issued by former President Donald Trump.
“Many of the things listed are statements we as an organization would be against. People should never feel that they are inferior simply because of their race or sex. I think that’s obvious. But we worry about how this will be interpreted. And we worry about the chilling effect on those institutions who seek us out as trainers. Will we be able to talk about systemic oppression? Will we be able to talk about concepts like privilege? That seems unclear.” he said.
Damian Thompson with Iowa Safe Schools, a group representing LGBTQ students, also said he opposed the restrictions on diversity training.
“The whole idea is to prepare educators to deal with specific scenarios and situations regarding their student population. And in a professional development setting amongst educators, we feel that educators should be able to have some of those frank conversations about issues affecting marginalized communities,” he said.
Other organizations registered opposed are Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, Iowa State Education Association, AFSCME Council 61, and Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The Iowa Board of Regents, Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Association of Community College Trustees, Iowa Association of School Boards, and Rural School Advocates of Iowa registered undecided on the bill.
The FAMiLY Leader and 1st Amendment Partnership registered support of the bill.
Lance Kinzer, with the 1st Amendment Partnership, said while there has been an improvement on Iowa campuses, more can be done.
“While I think we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in Iowa with respect to the sensitivity of universities to the First Amendment rights of student organizations, as we saw in Northern Iowa, back in the fall, sometimes student government doesn’t recognize the full extent of the constitutional and statutory rights and student organizations enjoy,” he said.
Kinzer noted that the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) president ultimately remedied the situation. He said that when the UNI student government attempted not to certify UNI Students for Life as a campus organization, he didn’t believe it was out of animus but out of ignorance of Iowa law and the First Amendment.
“All that controversy, I think, could have been avoided if Student Government members were made better aware of what the existing first amendment rights of some of these groups are,” he added.
The subcommittee consisted of State Senators Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, and Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center.
Quirmbach said the bill should also include discrimination based on religion omitted from the bill that mentioned other protected classes under federal and state law. He stated if they are agreeable to that, all of the language in Iowa’s Civil Rights code should be included.
Sinclair, the subcommittee chair, said the bill didn’t explicitly mention it, but it was based on state law and was implied.
He said he would prefer it to be explicit and sign on if they amend the bill to include that language.
Quirmbach, a retired Iowa State University professor, also disagreed with those who disagreed with the race and sex stereotyping language.
“I see language in here, though, contrary to what a couple people have said, language that protects freedom of expression of faculty and of students. So I don’t particularly see here that it would limit the discussion in an academic setting of the various unfortunate characteristics of American history that several alluded to before. I think we have to be open and honest about that. If we’re going to solve these problems and prevent them from reoccurring going forward. We do have to be aware of that past. But I don’t see any language here that would prohibit that discussion. In fact, I see language that would protect that discussion,” Quirmbach stated.
He also noted that he thought the bill’s requirement for a two-year suspension for student government organizations that violate state law was too prescriptive but pointed out that campus administration can’t ignore these issues.
Stating that he will support the bill, Taylor, a professor at Dordt University in Sioux Center, said he agreed with Quirmbach’s assessment of the language protecting faculty’s freedom of expression.
“I don’t see anything in this bill that would prevent me from talking about slavery, about the denial of rights historically, to women or other groups in our society. So I think in terms of diversity training, diversity education, it would not restrict that kind of approach unless it was engaged in race and sex stereotyping, and stereotyping is wrong, regardless of who it’s aimed at, just like prejudice is wrong. You’re prejudging anybody based upon what group they belong to or certain traits that they have. That’s wrong,” he said.
“I think this will empower students to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights in a way that right now I don’t know that they’re all that secure at some of the schools that we have,” Taylor added.
Quirmbach agreed with his point. “Stereotyping is the basis of racism,” he said.
“All people have X or have this characteristic or that characteristic. We have to do away with that limited kind of thinking,” Quirmbach said, reiterating he would sign the bill with his proposed amendments.