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Letter to the editor: Free speech and politics in Iowa

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The State Capitol Building in Des Moines — Drew Tarvin

By Christina Bohannan, State Representative, Iowa House District 85; law professor, University of Iowa

As a law professor, I am a strong defender of free speech. Defending free speech as a constitutional principle means defending the right of people to speak even when I disagree with their message.

As a Democratic State Representative from Iowa City, I have heard a lot recently about how Iowa Republicans believe they are victims of First Amendment violations against conservative speech. The Iowa House Government Oversight Committee held hearings to review complaints that the Regents Universities had infringed on conservative students’ free speech rights. In the University of Iowa case, the College of Dentistry Dean admitted that the College was wrong to schedule an inquiry for a student who criticized the College’s statement opposing an Executive Order issued by then-President Trump. Republican lawmakers accused the universities of “hypocrisy,” and said that it is a university’s job to educate, not “indoctrinate.”

I readily concede that the University made a mistake. Under the First Amendment, a state university should not punish anyone for commenting on a matter of public concern such as an Executive Order. To do so is not only a violation of First Amendment principles; it is also antithetical to the University’s educational mission to foster robust debate across different points of view. I was glad to see that university officials immediately recognized their mistake, apologized, and reversed course.

But there is another side to this story. Iowa Republicans say they are victims of free speech violations, but they are also perpetrators. Several of them have made statements or introduced bills that blatantly violate principles of free speech and association.

Here are just a few of the more egregious examples from the first five weeks of the legislative session:

  • During the Government Oversight hearing, the Republican Committee Chair was angry that the College of Dentistry Dean had not intervened to stop a liberal-leaning protest related to the issue, although that intervention itself would have clearly violated First Amendment rights.
  • A Republican Senator introduced SF 292, which requires the Iowa Board of Regents to “conduct a survey of all of the employees of the institutions governed by the state board of regents to determine the political party affiliations of all such persons.” This might very well violate the First Amendment right of association. It certainly smacks of 1950s McCarthyism.
  • A Republican Representative introduced HF 222, which would reduce funding from Iowa public schools that teach materials from the 1619 Project, which tells the history of the United States from the perspective of Black experience. That bill reeks of indoctrination, saying that the 1619 Project “attempts to deny or obfuscate fundamental principles on which this country was founded,” and that the state has an interest in “forming young people” into “patriotic citizens.”
  • A Republican Representative introduced HF 106, which would require University of Iowa and Drake law school faculties to be members of the Iowa Bar. This bill likely violates the First Amendment right of association.
  • Finally, the House education committee, led by Republicans, voted 12-9 to advance SF 41, a bill that would make Iowa the first state in the nation to eliminate tenure at the state’s universities. The whole reason for tenure is to protect free expression. It encourages independent inquiry in research, scholarship and teaching. It allows faculty to challenge entrenched ideas without fear of reprisal, and it protects liberal and conservative speech alike. Anyone who truly cares about free speech as a neutral constitutional principle, instead of as a means to achieve self-serving ends, should support tenure. The elimination of tenure would destroy our state universities and the tremendous value they bring to our state and our economy.

Iowa House and Senate leadership should have pronounced these bills dead on arrival. Instead, they breathed life into them by assigning them to committees and allowing them to advance to committee and perhaps even to the floor. Even if these bills don’t ultimately pass, they do real damage to our educational system every time they are publicly debated. They also chill free speech, as no one dares to speak against them for fear that they or their employer will be further punished by vindictive legislation.

When conservatives believe their free speech rights have been violated, they are right to call it out. We should all call it out, no matter who is speaking. But our Republican state legislators also need to clean up around their own doorstep. And they should certainly stop playing the victim when they hold all the political power in the state and are wielding it to suppress the free speech of thousands of Iowans.


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