DES MOINES, Iowa — A bill aimed at boosting freedom of speech protections at Iowa's public universities and communities colleges is moving to Governor Kim Reynolds desk for signature, after both chambers of the statehouse approved it this week.
The proposal requires the Board of Regents --- the governing body over Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa and the University of Iowa--- and directors of each community college to adopt a free speech policy on campus.
The bill directs the policy to, in part, read that the primary function of higher education is "the discovery, improvement, transmission and dissemination of knowledge by means of research, teaching, discussion and debate." The proposal also defines protected activities for students, including protests, speeches and circulating petitions. It also bars institutions from having "free speech zones," or other rules which would restrict activities to a specific place on campus.
"It prohibits—discrimination against religious belief and freedom of expression that’s been taking place at campuses all over the country," said Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville.
The proposal comes in response to a Christian-based group at the University of Iowa being stripped of its student organization status when it barred an openly gay member from being part of its leadership team.
The group, Business Leaders in Christ, filed a lawsuit that landed them a victory in court in January. Part of the bill would make it clear in state law that schools can’t strip student groups of their status if those groups require leaders to "agree and support" the organization’s beliefs.
This provision of the bill sparked outcry from Democrats, who condemned it as a way to open the door for discrimination.
“How are we welcoming students of diversity to any of these groups when we are saying you can participate in the group, you can pay your fees, but we really don’t want to hear from you. We really don’t want to let you run for leadership," said Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo.
Most Democrats voiced support for other parts of the bill with the exception of that one small section of the 8-paged bill. Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, proposed a change that would strike that part out of the bill, but ultimately that was struck down.
"The bill as it's written is insulting and discriminatory," Wolfe said.