Conservative student sues Iowa university over harassment policy
First Amendment | School administrators hold diploma hostage over failure to agree with speech-chilling rules
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 10/20/16, 02:22 pm
An Iowa State University (ISU) student sued the school Monday after an administrator told him failure to agree with campus harassment polices could cost him his diploma.
The suit claims ISU officials told Robert Dunn, a Christian and the leader of a politically conservative student group, that his graduation would be placed on hold if he did not comply with university “harassment” policies, including those prohibiting words that “annoy or alarm” another student, noting even “First Amendment protected speech activities” could constitute harassment, “depending on the circumstances.”
The ISU Office of Equal Opportunity sent an email to all students in early August requiring them to take an online training on “the university’s non-discrimination policies and procedures” and certify that they “read, understood, and will comply with” the procedures. The policies state students can be punished for speech based on their “tone of voice,” whether speech is “recognized by peers as a legitimate topic,” and “the degree to which the expression was necessary to the discussion of the subject matter,” effectively limiting any speech that might be perceived offensive by another student. The policies acknowledge the regulations go beyond the legal definition of harassment but argue they are important in order to create a “welcoming environment that is free of harassment and discrimination.”
But Dunn and his attorneys disagree.
“These ISU policies operate as an unconstitutional speech code that chills protected student speech by prescribing punishment of students on the subjective reactions of listeners,” the lawsuit states. “[Administrators] have now mandated that every student pledge compliance with these unconstitutional policies or face sanctions, including a hold on their graduation.”
Prior to August, university faculty and administrators warned Dunn that advocating for conservative views that offend others on campus might be deemed a violation of university policies. In advance of an on-campus speech by conservative writer David French, one professor told Dunn expressing opposition to same-sex marriage could be called harassment.
After receiving the training email, Dunn contacted the Office of Equal Opportunity to ask what would happen if he did not agree to its stipulations. He said a staff member warned his graduation would be placed on “hold” and he would be put on a list for “review” by the dean of students. Dunn decided to sue.
“These are anti-speech policies masquerading as harassment policies,” said Casey Mattox, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represents Dunn. “They’re not befitting an institution of higher education, especially when Iowa State demands that students agree to them under the threat of withholding the ability to graduate.”
In both 2013 and 2014, ADF sent letters to ISU offering to help it remedy the unconstitutional portions of its policy. In 2014, ISU administrators said they were reviewing the policies. New updates released in 2016 have not remedied the defects, according to ADF.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, Southern Division, requests ISU suspend the policies immediately and asks the court to issue a declaration that the university violated the First and 14th Amendments.
“No university policy can trump the First Amendment,” Mattox said. “Iowa State thinks it knows better than the First Amendment, making other student’s opinions about the value of a student’s speech, instead of the Constitution, the test for whether speech is protected.”