A bill that aims to expand free speech rights on public college campuses in Iowa passed the House and Senate this week in spite of concerns that it would open the door to discrimination in student organizations.
The House of Representatives debated the measure Thursday.
“The bill provides our students of our state universities and community colleges the guarantee that they will be able to have that exchange of thoughts and ideas on their best forum: the college campus,” said Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon.
Hite said the bill requires public colleges to promote free expression, avoid trying to protect students from others’ speech, and get rid of “free speech zones” he said unreasonably limit public expression to a few areas on campus.
Several House Democrats said they agree with most of the bill, but they said one section could allow discrimination. It says colleges cannot deny benefits to student groups that require their leaders to “agree to and support” the group’s beliefs.
“We are codifying the right of student organizations to violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act and to discriminate against their peers who do not share their exact values or beliefs by denying them the opportunity to hold leadership positions in the student organizations,” said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton.
LGBTQ advocates also oppose this section.
It was inspired by a lawsuit a student organization called Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) brought against the University of Iowa in 2017.
The university pulled BLinC’s registered status after it found the group discriminated against a gay student. 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 because it did not equally apply its human rights policy to all student organizations.
Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said the bill does not legalize discrimination.
“It prohibits discrimination against religious belief and freedom of expression that has been taking place at campuses all over the country, including here in Iowa,” Salmon said. “This bill ensures that all student groups would be protected.”
Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, said discrimination occurs every day and this bill would extend it by preventing full participation by certain groups of people.
“This bill sends a very negative message. And it sends a hurtful message,” Thede said. “We should be teaching our young people in college that we no longer put up with this.”
The House passed the bill 51-44 along party lines.
The Iowa Senate passed the bill Monday 35-11, with some Democrats voting in favor.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said students should be allowed to join any activities they want without the threat of discrimination.
“But it is also not our place to tell a Christian group, a Muslim group, or any other belief-based organization that they must be led by people who do not affirm the very beliefs on which the group was founded,” Sinclair said.
Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said it could lead to some people being denied leadership opportunities on campus.
“This is nothing about a person’s religious beliefs. This is a question about people who have an identity or belong to a group that has historically been marginalized,” Wahls said. “Those students are being denied because of who they are. That’s what discrimination is.”
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday she is still reviewing the bill.