Iowa State University Wrestles With Free-Speech Zones

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Iowa State University students like Michael Deichmann say they do not want restraints on speech or expression on campus.

“I believe in it,” Deichmann, a junior from Marcus, Iowa, studying marketing, said about freedom of speech, “but there are certain groups on campus I don’t necessarily agree with.” Professing traditional Christian morals, he was talking about groups like the Atheist and Agnostic Society.

Michael Deichmann, Iowa State University

Michael Deichmann, Iowa State University

“But I guess that’s their right to speak out, so at the end of the day it’s OK,” Deichmann said. “As long as it stays respectful and doesn’t dehumanize her demoralize people I think it’s all right.”

Iowa State has been a focal point for free speech issues the past few years because of moves free speech advocates criticized as stifling speech and expression. In one incident at the end of last year, student government senators debated expanding sanctioned free speech zones on campus but decided against recommending it. The student leaders opted instead to ask university administrators to clarify where demonstrations can take place.

That move prompted the national Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, to issue a “red” speech code rate for having at least one policy that its website says “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Visitors and campus organizations must notify the Memorial Union Event Management office and sign up to demonstrate in one of two free-speech zones at Iowa State.

Iowa State University's iconic Campanile tower. One of two designated free speech zones at Iowa State is south of the Campanile.

Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Iowa State University’s iconic Campanile tower. One of two designated free speech zones at Iowa State is south of the Campanile.

Student senators backing away from recommending expanded zones said they were concerned that students would suffer if more of the campus in Ames were designated for a free-speech zone. Moreover, they said they believed students would benefit by not having to be exposed constantly to some of the heated and aggressive demonstrations in free-speech zones.

The two areas designated for students, faculty, staff, organizations and members of the public to express their beliefs at a public setting on a first-come, first-served basis are the Edward S. Allen Area of Free Debate just outside of the Parks Library and the area south of the landmark Campanile. Allen was a civil rights activist who founded the Iowa Civil Liberties Union when teaching mathematics at Iowa State.

Even within these confined areas, rules limit certain expressions. Free-standing displays are permitted but can’t be too big. Signs and placards are allowed but must be carried by one or two persons, university policy states.

READ MORE:
Search For Civil Speech On College Campuses Collides With First Amendment

DEALING WITH SPEECH RULES

Dirk Deam, a senior lecturer in Iowa State’s political science department who teaches constitutional law, said free speech zones on campus trouble him.

Dirk Deam, senior lecturer for political science, at his Iowa State University office in spring 2016.

Alex Connor/Iowa State Daily

Dirk Deam, senior lecturer for political science, at his Iowa State University office in spring 2016.

“Because there’s a tradition associated with universities of free speech, the idea of a free speech zone on a college campus is at best superfluous. It’s redundant,” Deam said.

“The assumption is, that the only place on campus that you can say things under First Amendment protection is the free speech zone, and that’s just not true.”

Mark Rectanus, an Iowa State professor of German studies, said he supports free speech but that some limits on campus speech should exist.

“It’s hard to say absolutely that there should be no limits,” Rectanus said. “I think speech should be respectful of whoever speaking chooses to address. Some forms of speech are targeted. Some are very open. But I think all speech interactions should try to be respectful of the community they’re in.”

Limits have been tested.

Tom Short, an antagonistic traveling campus evangelist, has preached in the free speech zone outside Parks Library twice annually in recent years. He says his goal is to win back sinners’ souls before a strict, biblical God smites the gays, lesbians, non-believers, sluts and many more to an eternal hell.

His sermons have provoked atheist and agnostic groups, LGBT support groups and students like one Short called a whore, to speak out about slut shaming or to share their views on Christianity, religion and other social issues. Many students and student groups often stop to debate with the preacher.

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Visitors to the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., are asked whether or not colleges and universities should limit speech as a way to protect students from hateful comments. The informal result when this photo was taken April 3, 2016, was no.

Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Visitors to the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., are asked whether or not colleges and universities should limit speech as a way to protect students from hateful comments. The informal result when this photo was taken April 3, 2016, was no.

Protesters greeted conservative political commentator Katie Pavlich when she came to Iowa State’s campus in March 2015 to support allowing concealed weapons on campus as a possible safeguard for women against an attempted sexual assault. College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation, an organization promoting conservative ideals, sponsored Pavlich’s lecture.

Nigel Hanson, former president of the College Republicans, said the lecture was arranged to add another voice to the conversation about preventing sexual assault on college campuses.

But some students and faculty members who protested and spoke against Pavlich’s views said they felt the lecture was insensitive and inappropriate. Iowa State administrators sent a staff counselor who sat in on the lecture, ready to speak with students who requested the counselor’s time after the event.

“It might be agitating, but she wants to work to fix the problem,” Hanson said about Pavlich in an interview with the Iowa State Daily. “I think it opened our eyes to some new perspective.”

Deam said, “You simply have to tolerate different points of view that you don’t care for. That’s the whole point of the First Amendment. You tolerate other citizens’ remarks and the state has to tolerate your remarks.”

Deam said speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and disability may be restricted. Likewise with speech dedicated to inciting violence, he said.

“If the speech has so little political content and so much violent content that it could be considered what the court calls ‘fighting words’ then it’s not protected,” Deam said.

READ MORE: IN THEIR WORDS
STUDENTS, FACULTY, ADMINISTRATORS GIVE THEIR TAKE ON SPEECH AND EXPRESSION ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES

DEFINING FREE SPEECH LIMITS

Austin Thielmann, Iowa State University

Austin Thielmann, Iowa State University

Austin Thielmann, a junior from Manson, Iowa, studying political science at Iowa State, said he was torn when it came to deciding on whether or not speech should be limited on a college campus, but ultimately decided that free speech zones work. Students know they can hear about issues there and those who would be uncomfortable with discussions there can avoid the areas, he said.

“In all actuality at Iowa State University, we allow freedom of speech anywhere,” Thielmann said.

Mark Rectanus

Mark Rectanus

Rectanus, who has taught at Iowa State since the 1980s, said controversial events on campus over the years have been important for education.

“A conversation can occur in different contexts,” Rectanus said. “It could be in the open, it could be in the library or in the context of a panel discussion that sponsored by a group.”

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Makayla Tendall and Alex Connor are members of the Iowa State Daily staff. Tendall, a summer 2015 IowaWatch reporting intern, is a graduating senior at Iowa State University. Connor is finishing her freshman year.

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