DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – A national advocate for free speech on college campuses dropped its lawsuit against Iowa State University’s sidewalk chalking ban and other limits on political expression after the university agreed to permanently change its policies regulating student speech on campus.
In January, 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.
Speech First argued that the school’s chalking ban and other policies stifled political speech at a time when presidential politics are an especially hot topic on the campus.
Speech First moved to dismiss its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa after the parties reached a settlement agreement.
Iowa State agreed to make several permanent changes, including an end to the challenged chalking policy, which had barred student groups from announcing campus events on sidewalks. Also, the university dropped a policy that prevented students from using university email system to solicit support for political candidates and ballot measures.
And, it agreed to end a “campus climate reporting system” governing administration responses to reports of verbal harassment, such as bullying and taunting, which Speech First called speech-chilling.
“Not long after we sued, the University made several substantive changes to the policies that we challenged,” Speech First said in a statement released with the announced settlement Friday. “Specifically, it abandoned its prohibition on political emails sent by students and abandoned its ban on chalking. All students can now chalk, regardless of their viewpoint or their membership in a student organization, in certain areas of the campus.
“It’s unfortunate that the school changed its policies only after the Iowa caucuses, impacting students’ ability to fully participate in that important process. These students deserved better, and parents who are considering where to send their students to ISU in the future should bear that in mind.”
The university, in a statement by ISU’s Wintersteen Friday, put a positive spin on the settlement, saying the defense Iowa State presented in federal court “showed that Iowa State’s policy and practice does not unconstitutionally restrict speech based on the content of speech or the viewpoint of the speaker. Moreover, the allegations of suppression made by Speech First were simply not true.”
Wintersteen added that, as a public institution, “Iowa State University fully embraces its role as a First Amendment campus and is deeply committed to the constitutional protections of free expression. The protections afforded by the First Amendment and similar provisions in the Iowa Constitution are core values of Iowa State and are foundational to the university’s mission to create, share, and apply knowledge to make Iowa and the world a better place.”
The settlement said the parties will pay for their “respective attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses relating to the action and this agreement” and that, “nothing contained in this agreement shall be deemed as an admission of any liability or lack of merit in any claim or defense, by any party or by defendant.”
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.