Lawsuit Against Iowa State Claims University Policies Chill Free Speech

P. Gardner Goldsmith | January 7, 2020
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Given the widespread attacks on conservative and libertarian/individualist speech at universities over the past few years, one might think that a new report about a college speech lawsuit was just that: a legal action likely taken because a “place of higher learning” was punishing or banning freedom of expression on campus.

But the situation at Iowa State is a bit trickier than might at first appear, and it reveals that people often miss the point in debates over the insulting term “appropriate limits” to public university speech.

According to Celine Ryan, of CampusReform, Speech First, a non-profit advocacy group in favor of free speech, filed suit against Iowa State University on January 2 in an attempt to “help restore free speech and expression to America’s universities.”

And who wouldn’t applaud that? After all, many liberty-minded students have suffered at the hands of leftist professors who mark them down merely because their opinions don’t fit the leftist doctrines. I experienced precisely that at Boston University. Many conservative and libertarian guest speakers have been harassed and physically threatened on college grounds. Dave Rubin’s May 1, 2018 appearance at the University of New Hampshire was temporarily halted by a crowd that included an actual professor at the university – a prof named Dr. J Ruby Ryan (no relation to the reporter covering the story), who’d soon be teaching a course called “Trans-forming Gender” and who Tweeted:

We did something right! Glad we were able to disrupt this man’s hate speech as much as possible. He is nothing but a provocateur, and ‘civil discourse’ with him is impossible.

Which, if Dr. Ryan knew anything about Dave Rubin, described precisely what Rubin is not. His reputation grew because he engages exclusively in civil, long-form conversations with all kinds of folks holding all kinds of opinions. The fact that he’s openly gay also seemed to have flown past Dr. Ryan, as did the fact that she and her actual provocateurs were the ones stopping civil discourse.

This all fits together when looking at Iowa and this new lawsuit. Celine Ryan reports that Speech First cites:

…three specific policies that it claims are an active threat to the free expression rights of Iowa State students, including a chalking ban, a “Campus Climate Reporting System,” and a rule that bars students from sending emails having to do with political campaigns or elections.

The middle issue appears to be the most Orwellian.

The group noted particular concern surrounding the volume of Climate Reporting System “bias” reports filed at the university, with 110 reports filed in just its first year of existence. 

And representatives of Speech First offer more alarming information about that “Climate Reporting System”:

'Students credibly fear they will be anonymously reported to university authorities through the Campus Climate Response System, and refrain from speaking on political and religious topics accordingly,' the organization explained.

If one studies the other two matters, things become a bit more ambiguous. Ms. Ryan’s report does not clearly indicate whether the university is prohibiting students from sending campaign/election e-mails via their own personal e-mail addresses handled through internet provided by the school or through what is called the “Cy-mail” system provided by the university itself, likewise, the matter of “chalking” on university-owned sidewalks or buildings presents a similar matter of politically-directed speech being carried over or on property owned and operated by the university.

It would be easy for critics of leftist university policies to view Iowa State’s bans on chalking and political e-mails over its e-mail system as authoritarian attacks on freedom of expression prior to the caucuses. But there’s more to it than that – nuances that help all of us take some valuable lessons with us about the nature of freedom and the problems of government-run systems.

If this were a private school that did not accept any government money at all – on the federal or state or local levels – then nothing I, or anyone else, might think was right or wrong about its speech policies should have any legal bearing on those policies. If a private university believed it was more important to keep its sidewalks and buildings free of chalk, to keep its e-mail system free of any political e-mails, it should be free to institute those policies over that private property. Likewise, if a private university were to institute a policy allowing for only left-handed, one-eyed piccolo players to chalk or e-mail in favor of their profession or political problems, excluding all others, that is purely the prerogative of the school and those who would decide whether they wanted to pay to attend such a school. The school would rise or fall based on its decisions and other school managers could see the success or failure and adjust their policies accordingly, deciding whether they wanted to cater or not cater to those who might make up new clientele.

But Iowa State is funded by sacks and sacks of tax cash, so the idea that the “freedom of speech” issue is solely about the students there is only part of the equation. Sure, one can jump onto the side of the students and argue that any publicly-funded learning institution should allow students to express their opinions.

But this opens a Pandora’s Box that makes all public, tax-funded systems unmanageable. Because they are tax-funded, any taxpayer can demand that the system work in some way towards accommodating what he or she likes.

Which is why everyone argues and fights over how tax-funded systems work and what they exclude.

So in the case of Iowa State, when it comes to speech, it’s basically “nothing”. No chalking, no e-mails, and an overly sensitive administrative rule that could punish students for “saying” what isn’t approved. It looks Orwellian because of the suppression of speech and choice on campus, but it’s really Orwellian because the suppression of choice has already occurred:

Via taxation funding the system.