Bill to restrict discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in schools, such as systematic racism and sexism, advances in state legislature

The Iowa State Capitol. — Lauren Shotwell/Little Village

A bill that would restrict discussion of “divisive concepts” related to racism and sexism in Iowa schools and universities was passed by an Iowa House subcommittee on Monday. Both of the Republicans on the subcommittee voted for it, and the lone Democrat opposed it.

HSB 258 would require that the instructor of any mandatory diversity training or “inclusion efforts” at schools and universities “does not teach, advocate, act upon, or promote divisive concepts” such as whether “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally racist or sexist” or if people can be “inherently or systematically racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” due to their race or sex.

The bill applies to diversity and inclusion efforts for both staff and students.

“I just can’t think of another bill we’ve had that narrowed the ability of people to have a conversation, or restrict speech,” Rep. Mary Wolfe of Clinton, the subcommittee’s Democratic member, said.

Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Dennison and chair of the subcommittee, called himself a strong believer in free speech as he explained why a law restricting how some concepts are discussed is needed.

He said, “these concepts identified here are so exactly opposite of what our nation stands for, and what we have worked for, for many, many, many decades, and I will definitely advance to the full committee.”

The subcommittee’s other Republican, Rep. Skyler Wheeler of Orange City, invoked Martin Luther King Jr., to explain why he supported restrictions on how racism and sexism can be discussed. Like almost all conservatives who reference King, Wheeler confined himself to one sentence from one speech.

“‘I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ That’s a famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr.,” Wheeler said. “This bill is consistent with judging character rather than skin color or gender.”

“We must reject identity politics and the divisiveness that comes with it. We must reject the ‘religion of wokeism,’ as Ben Shapiro calls it, that is running rampant in our country. And we must embrace Dr. King’s words as well as this bill.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Dennison — official photo

Holt and Wheeler made it clear they are concerned that if the legislature doesn’t limit how schools and universities attempt to foster diversity and inclusion, straight white people will face discrimination.

“Some of this stuff that’s being taught these days seems to turn that on its head, that by virtue of the individual’s race or sex — if you’re white — you’re automatically this, that or the other thing,” Holt said on Monday. “That is unacceptable.”

Only one group, The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization, has registered in support of the HSB 258.

“Iowa does not have racism,” Danny Carroll of The Family Leader Foundation told the subcommittee. “We’ve got some conflict. But there’s no reason why our institutions of higher learning and public schools can’t consider both sides of these issues without fear of reprisal.”

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People in Cedar Rapids rallied against systemic racism and oppression on July 3, 2020. — Michael Schodin/Little Village

SF 478, the Iowa Senate’s version of the bill, includes most of the House bill’s prohibitions — for example, it gives “the state of Iowa is fundamentally racist or sexist” as an example of a prohibited divisive idea, but doesn’t mention the United States like the House bill does. It also requires training in the First Amendment for student government organizations.

The Senate bill would require universities to take disciplinary action against a faculty or staff member who violates a student’s free speech rights, although it is unclear from the bill how this would be determined. In addition, universities would only be able to place a very narrow set of restrictions on “any invited speaker” using “the outdoor areas of campus” for a presentation, if the bill becomes law.

At the K-12 school-level, the Senate bill would require a school district’s board of directors to take disciplinary action against any district employee the board or a court has determined violated the free speech rights of a student or another district employee.

SF 478 was approved by the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 25 on a party-line vote. Although the bill was passed by a voice vote, the four Democrats who voted against the bill — Sen. Claire Celsi of West Des Moines, Sen. Eric Giddens of Cedar Falls, Sen. Jackie Smith of Sioux City and Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott of Windsor Heights — asked that their votes be recorded.

One Democrat, Sen. Herman Quirmbach of Ames, supported the bill.

Quirmbach, a retired Iowa State University associate professor of economics, said he was in favor of SF 478 because, “It does not restrict anything in the way of what goes on in the classroom, or for that matter, the research that faculty may do on related topics, which I think that [sic] the research is often quite important in helping us to understand the basis for discrimination, racism and so forth.”

A protester holds up a sign during the speaking portion of the June 13 peaceful protest against racism and police violence. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village