A Victory for Free Speech on Campus

By Alan Ostergren

These days, it seems the last place where the free exchange of ideas is tolerated is a college campus. Too often we read about an example of a university administrator stamping out free expression and thought in the name of promoting ephemeral concepts like “social justice” or a “safe environment for learning.” Rather than promoting an environment where students and faculty exchange viewpoints and learn to live in a world where not everyone thinks alike, the trend is to treat certain views as out of bounds and subject to discipline.

This view almost cost a University of Iowa graduate student his chosen academic path and career prospects. When Jacob Johnson was waiting for class to start last fall, he engaged in a casual conversation with fellow students on a range of topics. During that conversation, he expressed his view that he believed certain conduct was contrary to his religious beliefs. His comment was not directed toward any particular student. The students continued chatting until it was time for class to start.

Sometime later, Mr. Johnson was summoned to his faculty advisor’s office. He was told that his comments could be considered  harassment,  homophobic,  and  theological  in  nature.  He  was told  that he  should  discontinue  expressing  such  sentiments  and  that  if  any  student complained  about  him  in  the  future  he  could  be  kicked  out of the  graduate  program.  The advisor  stated  this  decision  had  been  agreed  to  by  two  other  members  of  the  department who  were  in  a  supervisory  capacity.

The  Kirkwood  Institute  agreed  to  represent  Mr.  Johnson  and  brought  a  complaint  before the  university  for  the  violation  of his  due  process, free  speech,  and  academic  freedom  rights he  enjoys  under  university  policy  as  well  as  the  U.S.  and  Iowa  constitutions.  After  an investigation, the  university  agreed  that its  policies  had  been  violated  and  sustained  ethics violations  against  the  individuals  involved.  The  university  disavowed  any  claim  that  Mr. Johnson  had  violated  any  policy  or  was  subject  to  discipline  for  expressing  his  views  to other  students.

Fortunately, in this case the university recognized that the actions of faculty and administrators were indefensible. But it should not take a student finding a lawyer to file a complaint for the law to be obeyed. Iowa lawmakers recently enacted legislation in response to other free speech violations on the campuses of Iowa’s public universities that requires faculty and administrators to take training on their responsibilities to promote and protect free speech on campus. This training is an important step in the right direction.

Lawmakers should monitor the progress that these institutions make toward protecting freedom of speech on campus. If the universities cannot adequately demonstrate that they have done so, it will be necessary to implement more aggressive reforms. These could include mandatory dismissal for university employees who willfully have violated their obligations and the grant of a cause of action to allow students to sue for violations of their rights and hold the perpetrators individually liable.

There can be only one idea that is off limits on a campus: the belief that it is somehow the role of the university to protect people from different views, even if those views are offensive to some. To be sure, the university can and must protect against actual harassment, discrimination, or criminal behavior. But simply expressing an idea is not any of those things.


The Kirkwood Institute is a public-interest law firm based in Des Moines, Iowa. Its mission is, in part, to promote and protect the constitutional rights of Iowans. Alan R. Ostergren is President and Chief Counsel of the institute, and a contributing scholar to Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation.