What’s going on in iowa?


Most of you probably think I am usually left-of-center in my discussion of First Amendment issues in public education, so today I will shift right-of-center and discuss the conflict between anti-discrimination/harassment policies and the First Amendment rights of students, particularly at the higher education levels.  In the attached article, the Des Moines Register chronicles issues going on at three different public universities, where students on the right of the political spectrum claim that their universities have violated their First Amendment rights by enforcing anti-discrimination/harassment policies against them personally, or their organizations generally. 

According to the article, “Iowa State University took ‘corrective action’ in August after a professor’s syllabus prohibited students from submitting material that opposed Black Lives Matter, gay marriage, abortion and other topics.”  Students at the University of Northern Iowa complained that their university had denied a request to form a chapter of “Students for Life of America”, on the grounds that the university felt that the group would create a “hostile environment” on campus (this dispute is the focus of the article).  And at the University of Iowa, suit was filed after a Christian group banned a gay man from a leadership position in the group based on religious values. 

The interaction between anti-discrimination/harassment policies and the First Amendment right of students is a complex issue that is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say, when an education entity allows students to form groups, you generally have to allow all groups to form, and avoid discriminating against them on the basis of their viewpoints (which is what the students in most of these disputes are arguing).  It is usually better to allow the groups to form and then deal with any real disruption that they cause, then to deny them the right to form based on vague concerns that their mere existence might create a “hostile environment” (as seems to have been what happened at the University of Northern Iowa). 

If you are interested in this issue, keep an eye on Business Leaders in Christ (“BLinC”) v. University of Iowa, which was argued to the Eighth Circuit on September 22, 2020 (the lower court decision is 360 F.Supp.3d 885), and which may provide some welcome and much needed guidance in this complicated area of competing rights.