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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs law mandating free speech on Iowa public campuses

Then-Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds in her formal office talking about the transition to becoming Iowa’s next governor, May 2, 2017 (Iowa Public Radio Images/Flickr)

A week after President Donald Trump signed an executive order meant to mandate free speech at research universities and colleges, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday signed into law state free-speech legislation inspired by recent events on campuses but criticized by some left-leaning lawmakers.

The new law — after years of debate and fine-tuning — requires among other things Iowa’s public universities and colleges to adopt free-speech policies; prohibit First Amendment restrictions pertaining to public assemblies, campus property and visiting speakers; and allow student organizations to choose group leaders based on their beliefs and alignment with the group’s beliefs.

That last provision received loud opposition from Iowa House Democrats earlier this month, with Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, calling it “state-sponsored discrimination.”

She was among Democrats pushing to amend the legislation by dropping the line about student organization leadership. But the proposal survived unchanged — despite facing a similar suggested amendment in the Iowa Senate.

The overall bill passed the House 52-44, with Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, joining Democrats in opposition. It passed the Iowa Senate more comfortably with a 35-11 majority including some Democratic support.

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Iowa’s Board of Regents, among the bodies responsible for employing the new law, last year opposed the measure as unnecessary. This year, board spokesman Josh Lehman reiterated that free speech long has been a core principle.

After the governor’s signing Wednesday, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Policy Director Daniel Zeno echoed that sentiment, calling the “vibrant exchange of ideas” quintessential for public universities.

“In many ways, this law shares that vision,” Zeno said. “Most importantly, it eliminates so-called ‘free speech zones,’ which are really anything but.”

Still, the ACLU has “deep concerns” with the new law, specifically the portion dealing with student organization leadership, according to Zeno.

“Our government should not be subsidizing discrimination, and unfortunately this new law does that,” according to the ACLU statement.

“In light of the pernicious history of discrimination in education and related opportunities in this country, we are concerned that universities in our state no longer have the right to refuse to lend their sponsorship, resources, and funding to groups that exclude other members of the university community.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, was among those in the minority party who supported the legislation — noting it wasn’t perfect but still important.

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He said the University of Iowa, specifically, has work to do. He was referring to recent litigation involving a faith-based student group sparring with that campus’ administration.

In that case, the UI in fall 2017 deregistered the student group Business Leaders in Christ — or BLinC — for barring an openly gay member from becoming one of its leaders.

BLinC in turn sued the university for violating its First Amendment rights and for discriminating against it.

A federal court judge found the university was unevenly enforcing its human rights policy, ordering the UI to let the group back on campus until it enforces its policy on all student groups.

A second lawsuit against the UI from InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship is unresolved.

“Our public universities and community colleges should always be places where ideas can be debated, built upon, and creative thoughts flourish without limits,” Reynolds said in a statement Wednesday.

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© 2019 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.