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Regents Free Speech Committee meets for first time

DES MOINES — The new Board of Regents Free Speech Committee met for the first time Wednesday on the heels of the governor signing a bill into law requiring free speech training at the three state universities.

Regent and committee chair Gretta Rouse of Emnetsburg made some comments as the meeting started. “As far as this committee goes, the most critical thing I want to emphasize is that free speech is a hallmark of our society — and in higher education, it is absolutely critical that we not only protect that right — but that we have it embedded in the education that the students receive,” Rouse says.

The new law came after lawsuits or concerns raised at the University of Northern Iowa, University of Iowa & Iowa State University. “Institutions of higher education must be places where the explanation of ideas is embraced as a core value,” Rouse says. “It has been said before — but I will say it again — the Regents absolutely support free speech and the formation of this committee is an example of how we take this issue very seriously.”

Rouse says the committee is charged with ensuring everyone’s free speech is allowed. “This group will continuously evaluate what our universities are doing to protect free speech, and we will continue to examine our policies, as well as continue to examine best practices from outside the regents system,” Rouse says.

Regent staffer Aimee Claeys says the state law requires annual training. “The purpose of that is really to provide high-level training on the fundamentals of the First Amendment with a focus on freedom of expression,” Claeys says. “And to complement that training, the universities are committed to providing additional more in-depth training in targeted areas to target groups, such as training for administrators or faculty.”

The committee voted to explore hiring an outside company to develop a training program — as Claeys says that would likely be the best way to get the training started on the campuses this fall. She was asked if the training will be mandatory. “For this first year it would certainly be required, but at this point, we don’t anticipate there being any kind of student or employee penalty for not completing it,” she says. “We would instead use encouragement and reminders to reach full compliance.”

Claeys says they will review the compliance and take action if it is not up to the level they desire. The Free Speech Committee is also looking to develop a survey that could be used on all three campuses to gauge on-campus feelings about free speech.

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