Chalk Ban at Iowa College Draws Free-Speech Suit

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – A national advocate for free speech on college campuses brought a federal lawsuit against Iowa State University administrators, arguing the school’s chalking ban and other policies stifle political speech at a time when presidential politics are an especially hot topic.

Roberts Residence Hall at Iowa State University.(Photo via Manop/Wikipedia Commons)

Speech First, a nonprofit that opposes restrictions on free speech and other civil rights at colleges and universities, sued ISU President Wendy Wintersteen along with 14 other university administrators and nine members of the State Board of Regents that governs the school located in Ames, Iowa.

The group asserts in its complaint filed Thursday in Des Moines federal court that robust free expression is especially important as Iowa is at the heart of the national political debate with the Feb. 3 Democratic presidential caucuses looming.

“Yet Iowa State University and its officials have created a series of rules and regulations designed to restrain, deter, suppress, and punish speech concerning political and social issues of public concern,” the lawsuit states. “And they do so despite Iowa’s central role as the ‘first-in-the-nation’ to weigh in on presidential primary elections. The university’s policies plainly violate the First Amendment.”

Among the policies at issue is a ban on chalking campus sidewalks, with the exception of student organizations advertising events.

Speech First’s suit was filed by Skylar Limkemann of Smith Mills Schrock Blades in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Thomas McCarthy of Consovoy McCarthy in Arlington, Virginia.

In response to the suit, Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen said in a statement that the university “does not punish individuals for their constitutionally protected rights to expression, nor do we have policies or practices that prohibit expression based on the content of the expression or the viewpoint of the speaker. As a public institution, Iowa State University fully embraces its role as a First Amendment campus and is deeply committed to constitutional protections of free expression.”

Wintersteen added that “Iowa State University also takes seriously its obligation mandated by federal law to create and maintain a campus that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment. Iowa State University will continue to champion the First Amendment in our efforts to create a campus where all individuals and ideas are welcome and included.”

The school has seen several recent incidents of neo-Nazi, racist, and anti-Semitic messages on campus, but Speech First argues administrators have overreacted by discouraging students from speaking freely, and in the process often throttling students who support conservative candidates and causes.

Three ISU policies are identified in the lawsuit as unconstitutional limits on student speech: banning unapproved student groups from writing messages with chalk on campus sidewalks; prohibiting students from using their university email accounts for political advocacy; and speech-chilling administration responses to reports of verbal harassment, such as bullying and taunting.

After initially banning all sidewalk chalking, ISU made exceptions for registered student organizations to publicize their upcoming events using just seven words. Speech First’s complaint states that the chalking policy amounts to a restriction on the content of political speech in violation of the First Amendment, as well as a violation of an Iowa law protecting students’ expressive activity.

ISU students are also prohibited by administration policy from using their university email accounts to advocate for political candidates or ballot measures.

This, too, is an illegal content-based restriction, according to the lawsuit.

“While [the policy] apparently allows students on campus to send emails opposing candidates and ballot measures, as well as emails about political issues not tied to a person or an issue on the ballot, the  policy forbids students on campus from using email to garner support for people and policies when it matters most—election season,” the complaint states.

Speech First also argues that ISU’s “campus climate” reporting and response system created in response to reports of hate speech on university grounds chills free speech. The reporting system encourages students to report examples of what they consider incidents of bias against protected groups, based on race, gender identity or religion, and identify alleged offenders by name if possible, which all goes into a confidential database.

The lawsuit cites examples of unnamed students who say they are fearful of speaking out in favor of Republican political candidates or a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, or against “all-ages drag shows” at the local library, for fear of being reported as biased.

“The university’s policies are irreparably harming countless students who seek to express themselves and voice their opinions without fear of investigation or punishment,” the complaint states. “The university’s policies are especially likely to chill or deter speech on controversial or politically charged topics, as well as humor, satire, and parody. The result is that all university students lose the opportunity to challenge, debate, and learn from the views and experiences of their classmates.”

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