Iowa State University at Center of Free Speech Lawsuit

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AMES, Iowa -- A national nonprofit is suing Iowa State University, alleging three of the school’s policies violate students' right to free speech. 

Speech First targets the university’s chalking ban, which limits use of written messages on ISU sidewalks to only university recognized student groups; communication about ballot measures and political campaigns through school-issued email; and the existence of the Campus Climate Reporting System.

The nonprofit is claiming these limitations hinder student participation and involvement in the political process.

“Political speech and political organizing is something that the Founding Fathers felt very strongly about. One of the reasons that we have the First Amendment is for political speech, and so I think by hindering that I think you really hinder the ability of students to be involved in the caucuses,” said Speech First President Nicole Neily.

Most groups like the College Democrats rely on email to inform students on upcoming elections and ballot measures.

“The mass email system is really a method to get that message out there because everyone checks their email and so that’s the kind of information that we would put in there. Where to go to caucus, when to caucus, make sure they know the ins and outs of it, and so if we weren't able to, they would have to search for it,” said ISU’s College Democrat Co-President Sehba Faheem.

Speech First is representing three individual students who are recognized in the lawsuit as student a - b - and c. All three students identify as conservative and claim they are unable to express support for things like the Second Amendment and the reelection of President Donald Trump because of the current policies. 

But other students believe these policies protect the student body from the promotion of hate speech, which was a reason the university banned chalking early last year.

“I understand that there are reasons for wanting to limit this thing. If you are familiar with free speech law, you know there’s restrictions against incitement of hateful speech ... so I can understand why a university would want to avoid particularly inflammatory language, and that chalking is hard to police,” said Peter Clark, president of Students for Yang. 

“The chalking on campus wasn’t just about events, it was just talking in general about certain things that you cared about and I think that’s an important part of campus culture. I think we would lose [that] but at the same time it might be worth losing to protect the campus from the worst parts of campus culture,” said Faheem.

University president Wendy Wintersteen released the following statement in response to Speech First’s lawsuit: 

“Iowa State University does not punish individuals for their constitutionally protected rights to expression, nor do we have policies or practices that prohibit expression based on the content of the expression or the viewpoint of the speaker. As a public institution, Iowa State University fully embraces its role as a First Amendment campus and is deeply committed to constitutional protections of free expression. The protections afforded by the First Amendment and similar provisions in the Iowa Constitution are core values of the university and are foundational to the university’s mission to create, share, and apply knowledge to make Iowa and the world a better place. Constitutional free speech provisions are designed to establish and protect the “free marketplace of ideas” that is a fundamental characteristic of university life.

“In light of our commitment to these constitutional values, our campus has been and will continue to be a place where a diversity of ideas and thoughts will be expressed and debated. In this past semester, we have had numerous speakers and guests expressing a wide variety of thought. We have had political candidates and elected officials from all political parties on campus and held open forums where political issues were discussed and debated. Unfortunately, our campus has also experienced bigoted, hateful, racist, and anti-Semitic messaging that, while protected by the First Amendment, is also hurtful and harmful to many students.  

“Iowa State University also takes seriously its obligation mandated by federal law to create and maintain a campus that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment. Iowa State University will continue to champion the First Amendment in our efforts to create a campus where all individuals and ideas are welcome and included.”

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