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Iowa State agrees to stop requiring students to self-censor in order to graduate

Speech that is not ‘necessary’ could get you expelled

Iowa State University threatened to put a “hold” on Robert Dunn’s graduation if he didn’t agree to abide by campus harassment policies that would punish him for constitutionally protected speech – acknowledged as such by the university.

Up against an embarrassing federal lawsuit by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the school opted to just change its policies.

In a settlement reached last month, Iowa State agreed to make further changes to the discrimination and harassment policy that it amended in December, two months after Dunn sued.

The practical effect is that students can’t be punished for protected speech. They will not be found responsible for “harassment” unless the conduct meets the Supreme Court’s definition in the Davis precedent: namely that it creates an environment “sufficiently severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” to “substantially” interfere with a student’s education.

MORE: Public university sued for requiring student to censor himself to graduate

The school also won’t deny “graduation or any other or any other rights, privileges, or benefits” to which students are entitled, if they refuse to complete training or certify “compliance” with prior versions of various policies.

Iowa State is also paying the alliance $12,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.

In a statement Tuesday, the alliance noted that Iowa State specifically told students they could be punished – including expelled – for speech that does not “meet the legal definition of harassment … depending on the circumstances,” such as if other students think the speech is not “necessary” or is missing a “constructive purpose.”

Senior Counsel Casey Mattox said:

Today’s college students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, commissioners, and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public universities model the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students, and why it should disturb everyone when any university or college communicates to a generation that the Constitution doesn’t matter.

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Iowa State has a poor track record when it comes to honoring student speech.

A federal judge imposed an injunction on the school when, citing a trademark policy it had never enforced on other clubs, it tried to stop a pro-marijuana student group from using “ISU” on its club t-shirt.

The judge previously said that President Steven Leath – who is leaving ISU for Auburn University after a tumultuous five years – could be personally sued for the censorship.

Read the settlement and alliance statement.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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