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Iowa State University Hit with Lawsuit Alleging Free Speech Violations

— January 7, 2020

Iowa State University recently came under fire for allegedly infringing on students’ free speech rights.

Speech First, a nonprofit organization that helps students defend their constitutional right to free speech, recently filed a lawsuit against Iowa State University alleging three of the school’s policies harm free speech. For example, Nicole Neily, the president of Speech First, said one of the policies “prevents students from writing chalk messages on campus.” When commenting on the particular policy, Neily said:

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 lot of political things going on. 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.”

Image of the Free Speech Flag
Free Speech Flag; image courtesy of John Marcotte via Wikimedia Commons,

As a result of the ban, the suit argues the school is preventing the free flow of communication “at a key time when presidential candidates are visiting campus. Neily said, “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…And so I think student’s political and civic participation is really impacted by this in particular.”

In addition to the chalking ban, the university also bans students from sending emails in support of candidates and created a Campus Climate Reporting System designed to compile reports over what students find offensive. However, “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,” Neily said. When commenting on the Campus Climate Reporting System, she added that many students she has spoken to are concerned about it. As for how it works, Neily said:

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 to the person who has been reported on. And if needed — they’ll refer it elsewhere for further investigation.”

The overall process of the reporting system can have devastating impacts on a student’s free speech rights. As a result, Neily and others are concerned that policies like the ones implemented at Iowa State University will prevent students from taking part in thoughtful discussions and debates over controversial discussions for fear of being reported for saying something others may find offensive. Neily said the entire system is almost “Orwellian.” She added:

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. Iowa State is a public university, it is a state actor, they have to uphold the First Amendment, period.”

As part of the lawsuit, Speech First is asking the court to declare the three policies in question, the chalking ban, email policy, and the reporting system, as unconstitutional.


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