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Senators Advance Campus Free Speech Bill Amid Discrimination Concerns

University of Iowa
A lawsuit against the University of Iowa led to an effort by some lawmakers to expand free speech rights on public university campuses.

A group of college students traveled to the Iowa Capitol Thursday to voice support for a proposal that aims to expand free speech rights on public college campuses.

“As conservatives, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we expected there to be a bias when we went to a public university,” said Jacob Minock, president of the Iowa State University College Republicans. “And we are okay with that. But we are not okay with being silenced. And that is why we are here.”

But one section of the bill is drawing opposition amid discrimination concerns. It would bar colleges from denying funding to student organizations that require their leaders to agree to certain “standards of conduct.” 

Keenan Crow with One Iowa Action, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said that could result in discrimination against whole groups of people. He asked senators to remove that part of the bill.

“Because we believe it’s unfair to ask different groups of students—whether they are gay, or female, or disabled, or whatever—to subsidize groups that discriminate against them as a class,” Crow said.

The bill was filed last year in response to a court battle between a student organization called Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) and the University of Iowa.

The university pulled BLinC’s registered status after it found the group discriminated against a gay student. BLinC sued the University of Iowa in December 2017, and according to the lawsuit, BLinC had notified the student he wasn’t eligible for a leadership position because “his decision to enter into same-sex relationships was inconsistent with BLinC’s religious beliefs.”

A federal judge ruled against the university Wednesday because it did not equally apply its human rights policy to all student organizations.

“Sometimes the first amendment is messy,” said Keith Saunders, a lobbyist for the Board of Regents and University of Iowa. “We do our best to try and promote the ideals of free speech. That being said, there are times when there are disagreements.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said he’d support the proposal if it guaranteed protections from discrimination.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, and Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, advanced the proposal. Sinclair said discrimination is not the intent of the proposal.

“The goal of this bill is to try and find that fine balancing act of protecting the rights of both groups of citizens—allowing them to speak, allowing them to have voice for their own freedom of assembly in addition to their freedom of speech—and give the university some direction in making that happen,” she said.

Sinclair said she would work on amending the bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter