Justice Dept. backs conservative group in U of Iowa lawsuit
- The U.S. Department of Justice is siding with a Christian student group in its lawsuit alleging the University of Iowa violated its First Amendment rights by withdrawing registration from the group after it refused to let a gay student become a group leader. The university subsequently withdrew at least 38 other student groups' registrations after a federal judge ruled it was enforcing the policies unequally, The Gazette reported.
- The group, which said it permits openly gay students to be leaders, requires officers sign a statement defining sexual relations as appropriate solely between a man and a woman and within marriage and that "people should embrace, not reject, their God-given sex." The university said the language "excludes ... gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals" and deregistered the group after it failed to comply with university anti-discrimination policies.
- Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio contended in a December statement that the U of Iowa was among a group of schools "ignoring their legal obligations" to uphold First Amendment protections by cracking down on student groups that university officials don't like. He said the Justice Department "will continue to get involved in these kinds of cases until this alarming trend is reversed."
Free speech has become a roiling issue on college campuses and a strong priority for the Trump administration.
In September, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned in a speech that the Justice Department would aggressively support free speech initiatives. The agency has recently filed several other statements of interest similar to the one in the U of Iowa case.
That same day, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos decried what she has said is an assault on free speech by university administrators, singling out Arkansas State University, where a student sued the university after it stopped her from distributing conservative political literature. The university has denied it violated the student's freedom of speech rights.
Similarly, a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College filed a lawsuit against the school after she said she was restricted from distributing Valentine's Day notes containing Bible verses. She claims the security officer stopped her because she was not in the appropriate area to distribute literature.
Some colleges have had to shell out thousands of dollars to settle free speech cases. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, in December agreed to settle a lawsuit for $70,000 brought by student groups that alleged the university was discriminating against conservative speakers. Likewise, University of Washington agreed in June to pay $122,500 for a similar lawsuit stemming from security fees over a planned conservative rally.
Although such cases have become more prominent, Georgetown University's Free Speech Project found in August that only about 60 incidents of unfair discrimination against people over their political views had been reported on some 4,500 college campuses over the prior two years, often involving the same handful of speakers.
In an effort to address the issue, Colgate University developed a statement on freedom of expression that recommends guaranteed free speech as long as it causes no "needless harm" and advocates for dialogue to take place. It has drawn comparison to a 2015 University of Chicago statement on free speech that more than 50 colleges or their faculty bodies have since signed onto, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.