A word used in a derogatory way toward African Americans is in this report and may be viewed as offensive. It was not removed or censored in order to authentically state the kind of language being referred to by speakers.
Enough bad feelings had come to a head that some 200 people felt a need to gather at the University of Northern Iowa on a November night to talk about cultural diversity.
The catalyst was the kind of language students were hearing around campus.
“I mean, when I hand out a flyer for the Baile,” freshman elementary education major Chloey Arispe said at the time, referring to an Hispanic Latino Student Union dance, “and someone goes, ‘oh, this is just a beaner thing,’ I can’t control what’s coming out of their mouth. But I want, I want to control what happens when I report it — when I say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling comfortable.’”
Encounters like that on campuses across the country are prompting an examination of whether or not limits on speech and expression should exist at a college or university.
It’s a controversial topic, raising this sticky question: If limits should exist, where do you place them?
An IowaWatch college media journalism project in late winter and early spring found a general aversion to limiting speech and expression on several Iowa campuses but willingness among some to regulate speech – hate speech for instance – that threatens someone.
That informal conclusion paired with results of a national study released in April. A national Gallup Poll for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute showed that seven of 10 college students nationally favored policies against slurs and other intentionally offensive language.
“You can be violent with someone without using your body,” Sarah Clark, 21, a Cornell College senior from Salt Lake City, Utah, said. “Basically saying to anyone that you don’t have the right to exist in this space is hateful. It is hate speech.”
James Hampton, chair and professor of biology at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, said college campuses should promote the exchange of free ideas and that restricting what you can talk about on them doesn’t make sense.
“But I do think it makes sense that, if you are trying to convince somebody that your idea is the correct one, that you use language that lets them hear you,” Hampton said. “If you’re using hateful language they’re not going to hear your ideas. They’re going to hear your hatred.”
INSTANCES IN IOWA
Iowa has had a fair share of instances where First Amendment free speech rights were challenged:
• University of Iowa officials washed away depictions of hearts abortion opponents drew in chalk on university sidewalks in mid-April. It was one of many incidents nationally involving university policies on what can be chalked and what cannot.
• The University of Iowa came under fire from free-speech advocates when administrators asked in December 2014 that a statue of a Ku Klux Klansman be removed from the Pentacrest. An adjunct art professor said he placed it there as a piece of art designed to make people uncomfortable and critical of the Klan. It made people uncomfortable – angry in some instances – and the intended message did not connect with many. University officials said they sought the removal because the artist did not have a permit to display at the Pentacrest. But university officials also apologized for any offense the statue caused.
• A Des Moines Area Community College student sued in federal court after college officials stopped him in 2013 from passing leaflets expressing what he said was his religiously based opposition to giving state funds to a conference for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. A campus security officer took the leafleting student to the student activities office, where the student was told to abide by the college’s solicitation and recruitment policy. The college later backtracked, settled the case and changed its free speech zone policy for students.
• Iowa State University’s student government rejected a measure calling for expanding free speech zones on campus. Unable to agree on the topic the student leaders opted instead to support a generic call for advocating free speech and asked Iowa State administration to clarify university policy on free speech zones.
• Meanwhile, Iowa State is appealing a federal court ruling that said the pro-marijuana group, NORML, may use Iowa State logos on t-shirts.
• Students at Cornell College in Mount Vernon are involved in a spring battle of words over how to talk about minorities on campus. College administrators stepped in with public forums to calm nerves while promoting open speech but the words continued to fly into late April.
• Students at the University of Northern Iowa report that routinely used racially charged language and attitudes on campus create an unwelcoming atmosphere. Consistent low-level behavior and comments, called micro-aggressions, poison the atmosphere for African Americans and Latinos but also bisexual and transgendered people, students said in IowaWatch interviews and reports in the campus paper, The Northern Iowan.
Common student complaints include feeling shut down in conversations when they hold a minority opinion on politics or their personal or religious beliefs. Others tell of feeling threatened, notably because of their ethnic backgrounds.
“I’ll be walking around campus and just be thinking, glancing at people and thinking, ‘what do they think of me?’ or ‘are they racist?’ or, just things like that,” Alfred O’Brien, 23, an African American who graduated from Northern Iowa in December with a degree in in marketing management and ethics, said in an IowaWatch interview.
Mariah Dawson, 21, a University of Iowa junior studying chemistry said she hears comments about her dark skin.
“All the time people say racial slurs,” she said. “You hear people saying nigger all the time on campus. But growing up black it’s something you learn to deal with. If I fought everyone who says nigger to me I’d be tired all day long.”
Dawson said she viewed the controversial KKK statue in December 2014 in the context of being an African American. “If a black person sees the KKK we are alarmed. It’s a threat. That situation was more alarming than if someone is saying nigga’ to me at Brothers,” she said. Brothers is a downtown Iowa City bar that is popular with students.
READ MORE: IN THEIR WORDS
STUDENTS, FACULTY, ADMINISTRATORS GIVE THEIR TAKE ON SPEECH AND EXPRESION ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
Samantha Harris, director of policy research for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, was critical of the University of Iowa for asking that the KKK statue be taken down and for apologizing for it.
“Perfect example of how this subjective determination is an issue,” Harris told IowaWatch. “You shut down speech that is making a contribution to the marketplace of ideas.”
Harris said universities across the country increasingly are restricting speech on campuses. “There should not be any more restrictions on campuses than there is in society by the First Amendment,” she said.
The University of Iowa set out at the beginning of this year to establish a bias assessment response team that can respond to complaints about racially based comments or incidents that could violate student policy or a crime.
Sarah Hansen, University of Iowa vice president for student life, said the team’s focus should not be on punishing people. Rather, the team, using the acronym BART, should provide a meaningful way to address the needs of people hurt or offended by something another student did that might not be illegal or break the university’s student code of conduct, she said. “For those cases that would normally fall through the cracks where there would be no response,” she said.
“My focus is much more on creating an atmosphere where we can encourage discourse about issues that we disagree about,” Hansen said. “I think that’s part of the role of higher education. So I would want to focus on upholding our ability to have strong discourse but also understanding that sometimes that affects people and that we need to focus some attention also on how those people are affected.”
THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA DROPPED ITS BIAS ASSESSMENT RESPONSE TEAM IN AUGUST 2016 CITING ACADEMIC FREEDOM CONCERNS AND REPORTS THAT SIMILAR PROGRAMS ON OTHER CAMPUSES HAD BECOME PUNITIVE.
Writing a coherent definition of hate speech is difficult, said Chris Malloy, a pending University of Iowa College of Law graduate and also a doctoral candidate at the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and supervising attorney at the university’s Student Legal Services.
“Any time you are advocating for violence against another group, that is something that can be limited under the First Amendment,” Malloy said. “But beyond that, saying things like ‘I don’t think what this group of people is doing is right,’ I don’t think that’s hate speech.”
The Newseum Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation have embarked on an effort to make suggestions in a report later this year on whether or not acceptable written boundaries for speech and expression can exist at a college or university. They invited 42 students – three from Iowa State – to an April 2 conference in Washington, D.C., for a conference on the topic.
IowaWatch was invited, too, and gave a presentation about its college media project. Two of the three Iowa State students were part of the IowaWatch project.
Gene Policinski, Newseum’s chief operating officer, said he hopes the conference launched a multi-year project to find a way to protect speech on campuses.
“Is there any real point any more to having free speech zones or a free speech location? First of all, my view, all of America is a free speech zone,” Policinski said in an IowaWatch interview. “But, when I can reach the planet with a tweet from my dorm room is there really any point now for universities to establish these zones of free speech?
“But there also are issues of intimidation. We see these Twitter campaigns where a person’s reputation can be attacked very easily.”
The national Gallup Poll, which was delivered at that conference and released publicly two days later, showed that eight of every 10 students surveyed said they think it is more important for colleges to allow offensive speech than to prohibit certain speech. Seven of every 10 adults agreed with that, the survey showed.
The poll, conducted March 5-8, 2016, for the Knight Foundation and Newseum, was based on 3,072 responding college students ages 18 to 24 who are enrolled full-time at four-year colleges and 2,031 adults ages 18 and older. No Iowa students were surveyed. The margin of error for a 95 percent confidence level was plus or minus 3 percentage points for students and for adults.
The context for all of this is the long-held notion that college is a place to explore new ideas, including uncomfortable ones that challenge what you believe to be true. It’s part of moving into real life, Jake Westpfahl, 22, a Northern Iowa senior from Center Point graduating with a degree in English, said.
Mount Mercy University President Laurie Hamen said higher education should teach students to bolster their arguments while giving value to people with different opinions and minority and majority viewpoints should be discussed equally in and out of the classroom.
“I hope we are always stretching the boundaries of free speech so we are allowing our students and other college students to learn something new or view an issue differently,” Hamen said.
Mount Mercy is a private, Catholic university in Cedar Rapids. The First Amendment protects speech from government regulation, not private institutions with codes for behavior. Still, Hamen said, the university encourages a variety of expression.
REALITY IN THE CLASSROOM
Yet, faculty members interviewed for the IowaWatch college media project said they feel a need to govern what they say in classrooms, especially when dealing with students who say something during class that not only could be offensive, but wrong.
“I’ve experienced situations where you have to kind of couch what somebody says and say, ‘I hope you didn’t mean, you know, for that to sound racist or sexist,’” Sarah Livesay, a University of Iowa English graduate student and instructor for five years. “But you have to say it in a way that doesn’t insult that person because they’ll feel shut down.”
Livesay said she enjoys listening to undergraduate students express their thoughts on tough issues.
“Well, faculty and people who work at a university will have these very intellectual ways of expressing opinions, and they do find ways to push other people’s buttons for sure. But what I like about undergraduate students is, like, they aren’t totally part of that culture so they don’t always know what to say. And I think a lot of times that gets us to a really good place, really good discussion.”
Shannon Reed, associate professor and director of English at Cornell College, shared one instance in which a student in a past class said some people deserve to be slaves and that people in some specific racial groups were superior to others.
“That was really difficult to respond to as a professor because, as someone who is in a position of power in that classroom and as someone who has the responsibility to facilitate engaged conversation, I can’t just turn around and say, ‘That’s so offensive, I don’t even know how to respond to it,’” Reed said.
“Fortunately, in that situation, while I sat there and tried to think of what to say, some other students started asking questions. And that gave me the space to sort of reframe and to talk about the implications of those kinds of sentiments, and that sort of thing. So, absolutely I think students have the right to say things that are totally offensive. And that wasn’t hate speech.”
A growing practice is the use of trigger warnings. These are warnings ahead of time that warn that speech or expression that is about to come may offend you or make you uncomfortable. The notice at the top of this story about the language about to come was a trigger warning.
“Boy, I’ve read so much about this,” University of Northern Iowa Provost Jim Wohlpart said.
“The individual who first came up with the concept was trying to engage faculty in thinking deeply about the way in which they offer materials in a classroom, recognizing that we have a certain student body that perhaps has had traumatic experiences in their life in the past,” Wohlpart said. “And how do we make certain that when we are engaging very complex, uncomfortable materials we are doing so in a way that allows for growth?”
First Amendment rights advocates are quick to point out that freedom of speech does not remove accountability for what you say.
“You know, the price I pay for having freedom of speech is that all those other idiots out there get it, too,” Andrew Pritchard, Iowa State University assistant professor of journalism and communication and expert on communication law, said. Pritchard is a member of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch board of directors.
Konner Bryant, a Mount Mercy business management, marketing and human resource sophomore, said he has learned to value others’ opinions even if they do not agree with his.
Konner, who says he sometimes fields questions from other students about being gay, said he tries to understand the background and experiences of people with whom he disagrees. He said he takes that approach to the classroom.
“I always try to take my opinions back when I am discussing a topic because I know things can get heated if you are too ‘one-sided.’ I like to play devil’s advocate to try and help people see things from a different prospective and to try and learn something myself,” Bryant said.
Even speech that is not critical of a person or institution can provoke controversy. Kendall Hazel, 22, a Buena Vista University senior from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, told of how he wrote an opinion column that praised that Storm Lake-based university’s dining provider, Sedexo.
The column, published in February by the student-run newspaper, The Tack, drew a strong response online from one anonymous writer who called the column disgusting and juvenile.
“What I learned from that moment was like, I wrote an opinion piece and someone commented on my opinion piece with their opinion piece,” Hazel, who is graduating with a biology major, said. “And I said, and I quote, I said, ‘That’s the beauty of free will, that whoever it was – he or she – had the opportunity to say, hey, I didn’t like this at all. I’m going to comment.’
“And I had the ability to comment back and say, ‘Hey, that’s fine.’”
The students, faculty, administrators and free speech experts interviewed for the IowaWatch college media project point to instances like that when defending free speech rights on a college campus.
They also gave strong indications that, despite the forums, conferences and position papers, finding the line that defines acceptable and unacceptable speech will remain difficult because of the people trying to move it.
“When this is not a difficult issue for someone, I don’t quite trust them,” Jim O’Loughlin, a UNI associate professor of English, said. “If it’s easy – ‘it’s always just free speech’ – or it’s easy – ‘no one should ever be offended’ – that’s the problem.
“The fact is that it is complicated. There is a tension, and it should be discussed.”
COMING WEDNESDAY: IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY WRESTLES WITH FREE-SPEECH ZONES
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IowaWatch college media journalists contributing to this story were Christina Rueth and Clare McCarthy at Cornell College; Ian Schmit at the University of Iowa; Taylor Zumbach at Mount Mercy University; Christie Smith and Makayla Tendall at Iowa State University; and Tiffany Brauckman, Brittany Poeppe and Kyle Wiebers at Buena Vista University.