AMES — The nonprofit group Speech First has filed a lawsuit against Iowa State University saying three policies instituted on campus have had a chilling impact on free speech.
The president of the group, Nicole Neily says one policy prevents students from writing chalk messages on campus. “It seems it started with a pro-life group chalking pro-life messages and then a pro-choice group chalked their messages. And then everybody kind of got involved and there were a lots of political things going on,” Neily says. “And then at some point some offensive messages were chalked and the school put in place an interim ban — and then the student government voted on it and made it a permanent ban.”
Neily says the ban prevents communication at a key time when presidential candidates are visiting campus. “A lot of the students I talked to had learned about these events and either attended or organized counter events as a result of this chalking,” she says. “And so I think student’s political and civic participation is really impacted by this in particular.”
Neily says the school also banned sending emails in support of candidates. And she says they created a Campus Climate Reporting System to take reports of things students found offensive. “Turns out that often the speech that ends up being reported is political speech and it is religious speech. And the school has a portal where you can do this anonymously,” she says.
Neily says the process used to react to the reports raised concerns with students. “The school will collect that information. The team that analyzes it is made up of university administrators, including university police — and then depending on what the report is — they’ll reach out to the reporter and they’ll reach out the person who has been reported on. And if needed — they’ll refer it elsewhere for further investigation,” Neily explains.
She says this process has a chilling impact on the students’ rights to free speech. “I think of it as kind of a Orwellian reporting system,” Neily explains.”Students are making what I think is a very logical decision to just avoid the hassle of going through an investigation altogether. And just avoiding having controversial discussions — because they fear the punishment by process.”
Neily says these three things go directly against the idea of what should happen on a campus. “You know, college campuses are the place where ideas should be vigorously debated. But unfortunately it seems like the window of acceptable discourse is narrow these days that students who express viewpoints outside of that orthodoxy, they face administrative proceedings,” Neily says. “Iowa State is a public university, it is a state actor, they have to uphold the First Amendment, period.”
Neily says Speech First has asked the court to declare that the chalking ban, email prohibition on political speech, and Campus Climate Response System are all unconstitutional, and to enjoin both the chalking ban and prohibition on electronic correspondence in support of candidates and ballot initiatives in advance of the February 3rd Iowa Caucuses.
An ISU spokesman says they are reviewing the lawsuit and had no comment