Politics & Policy

Iowa State Bans Student Emails Supporting Candidates

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, December 4, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
And I’m glad it’s being sued.

Iowa State University’s speech policies place strict limits on the ways in which students can express support for political candidates — and now, thankfully, the school is being sued over it.

According to a piece in The College Fix, Iowa State bans writing political messages in chalk on its sidewalks, as well as student emails supporting candidates and campaigns. (Interestingly enough, as The Fix also notes, it does allow emails opposing them.)

In response to these policies (as well as to the school’s Campus Climate Reporting System), the pro-free-speech nonprofit Speech First filed a federal lawsuit against the taxpayer-funded school on Thursday, arguing that the school’s policies violate both state law and students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

“One month out from a major political primary, students have been significantly — and unconstitutionally — burdened from participating in the political process,” Speech First president Nicole Neily said, according to The Fix.

The nonprofit is reportedly demanding permanent injunctions against the school’s policies on constitutional grounds, as well as preliminary injunctions to scrap the chalking and email bans before the Iowa caucuses, which take place February 3.

In response to an inquiry about the school’s treatment of speech, The Fix received a statement from the college’s president, Wendy Wintersteen. In the statement, Wintersteen gives the predictable defense: Certain speech, “while protected by the First Amendment, is also hurtful and harmful to many students,” and the school “takes seriously its obligation mandated by federal law to create and maintain a campus that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment.”

Wintersteen claimed that the campus has dealt with instances of “bigoted, hateful, racist, and anti-Semitic messaging.”

“Iowa State University will continue to champion the First Amendment in our efforts to create a campus where all individuals and ideas are welcome and included,” Wintersteen said.

According to Speech First, however, the school’s anti-chalking policy violates an Iowa law that states that a “member of the campus community who wishes to engage in noncommercial expressive activity in outdoor areas of campus shall be permitted to do so freely.” As for the school’s email policy — a violation of which, The Fix reports, can result in suspension from the campus email network, fines, and other disciplinary action — Speech First claims that it violates students’ constitutional rights by implementing content-and-viewpoint-based restrictions on protected speech. Finally, it argues that the school’s Campus Climate Reporting System also represents a constitutional violation.

Seeing as Iowa State is a public university, I would have a really hard time understanding how all of these policies could possibly be legal and constitutional. The thing is, though, even if I’m wrong (or, should I say, even if a judge disagrees with me), I still would have a hard time understanding how the university could ever think that these sorts of policies would be in the best interest of their students anyway.

Let me be clear: Speech First states that the school’s current policies are “irreparably harming countless students” and depriving them of the “opportunity to challenge, debate, and learn from the views and experiences of their classmates” — and I completely, wholeheartedly agree.

The school’s reason for these policies may be to ensure that its students are comfortable on campus, but what they’re really doing is ensuring that its students will be very uncomfortable once they leave. I understand the desire to protect students from awful things like racism and sexism, but banning all political chalking and politically supportive emails in an attempt to achieve this is like trying to kill a fly with a nuclear bomb.

College is supposed to be a place that prepares its students for the real world. That’s the entire purpose of attending! Learning how to be an engaged citizen is something that should be encouraged in this kind of environment, not restricted. After all, not only is political engagement an important part of our culture, it’s also an increasingly unavoidable one. In just a few short years (um, at least hopefully?) these now-students are going to leave campus — and, once they do, they’ll have no choice but to deal with politics. If they haven’t had the opportunity to practice this on campus, then they’re automatically going to have a much harder time once they’re off it.

The truth is, if Iowa State really wants to prepare its students for the future, then it needs to completely change its approach. Rather than forcing these young people to abruptly adapt to basic speech freedoms once they graduate, it should be encouraging them to develop them somewhere where the stakes are lower, and they have much easier access to guidance and support: on campus.

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