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Civil Rights

Iowa State University Sued for Its Overly-Sensitive Anti-Bias System

— January 3, 2020

The lawsuit cites the example of a professor who was reported for bias–simply because they didn’t condemn a student for calling abortion a “women’s issue.”

Iowa State University is facing a First Amendment lawsuit which alleges the school has enacted and enforced numerous policies which infringe students’ right to free speech.

The lawsuit claims that Iowa State has “created a series of rules and regulations designed to restrain, deter, suppress, and punish free speech concerning political and social issues of public concern.”

The complaint was filed in federal court by non-profit advocacy group Speech First. Their suit lists several alleged violations of the First Amendment. For instance, Iowa State has a policy generally prohibiting students from “broadcasting email from a university account to solicit support for a candidate or ballot measure.” Other regulations restrict sidewalk chalking, a practice often employed by pro-choice and anti-abortion demonstrators on-campus.

Iowa States, notes The Wall Street Journal, ‘recently intervened’ against chalking, insisting that only registered student organizations have the right to chalk on pavement—and that too only if they’re promoting an event.

U.S. Constitution. Image via (U.S. Air Force illustration/James Borland). Public domain.

According to the WSJ, Iowa State is likely to face its biggest liability threat for its Campus Climate Reporting System.

Under the CCRS, students are encouraged to report so-called “bias incidents” to university administration. Whenever a “bias incident” occurs and is reported, the complaint is forwarded to a panel which includes Iowa State University Police Department personnel and the school’s dean of students.

Speech First claims that Iowa State’s definition of “bias” is “amorphous and entirely subjective.” Students are thus left unable to verbalize their opinions, fearing “that the expression of their deeply held views will be considered ‘biased’ and reported.”

Most jarringly, Iowa State’s campaign against “bias” extends to course discussions and seminars, including “commentary in the classroom perceived as derogatory or biased.”

One rather bizarre report submitted to the university’s bias board concerned a student’s assertion that matters like “abortion and birth control” are “women’s issues.” The professor remained neutral and neither condemned the student’s opinion or supported it. But a concerned individual—likely another student—maintained that the classification of abortion and birth control as “women’s issues” censures “trans men and people who are non-binary who get abortions and/or use birth control.”

Despite the professor’s willingness to let a student voice what may be an unpopular opinion, the bias complaint demanded the instructor be disciplined for failing to “push back” or otherwise encourage “students to be more inclusive.”

Iowa State spokeswoman Angie Hunt said the university “is committed to upholding the First Amendment, and therefore, does not impose restrictions or punish individuals based upon the content of a person’s speech.” Hunt further claimed that the Campus Climate Reporting System simply makes referrals to appropriate departments and agencies, which determine whether or not any corrective measures should be taken.

But as the Wall Street Journal points out, Iowa State’s contentious system isn’t well-served by precedent—Speech First sued the University of Michigan for similar practices last year, forcing the school to dissolve its own bias response team pursuant to an appeals court decision.


Campus Bias Blowback

Iowa State University faces lawsuit claiming they violated first amendment rights

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