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.