Required First Amendment training suffers from low participation


Mia Wang/Iowa State Daily

Iowa State students gather in the “free speech zone” outside of Parks Library. 

Molly Blanco and Sierra Hoeger

The Iowa Board of Regents implemented a required First Amendment training earlier this year for students, faculty and staff at the three public universities in Iowa. 

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures protection for the freedoms of speech, press, petition, assembly and religion.

The goal of the training, which is an initiative created by the Board’s Free Speech Committee, is to support a “continued commitment” to protecting freedom of expression. 

The training was one of 10 recommendations provided by the Free Speech Committee to improve First Amendment practices on campus. 

The annual training applies to faculty, staff and students at Iowa State, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa. 

Greta Rouse, chair of the Board of Regents Free Speech Committee, said the training was implemented to help “strengthen free speech on our campuses.”

“Free speech is a bedrock principle of our country,” Rouse said. “Institutions of higher learning need to be a place where the ability to discuss and debate issues freely must be allowed to happen.”

Students at Iowa State are no stranger to additional trainings on Canvas, with each student required to complete a safe drinking and sexual assault awareness module early in their college career. 

Because of the informal execution of these trainings, some students view them as voluntary. 

According to Rouse, all faculty and students are expected to complete the free speech training before the end of the spring semester. However, there is no penalty if the training is not completed.

“I do not think putting this training on Canvas is an effective method,” said Olivia Jacobs, a junior majoring in kinesiology and health. “Most students will see it as optional and choose not to take it. A lot of students are taking six classes and adding another ‘course’ onto Canvas can get a little unorganized.”

Jacobs said the training may be more effective as a half-semester class, similar to LIB 160, the 1-credit library science course required for all students. 

Emma Gilles, a junior majoring in English, said she has not yet completed the training but plans to do so. 

“Your rights are something you should know about and be aware of,” Gilles said. “So if it’s just, hey, this is what your rights look like on our campus, I think that’s a helpful thing for students.”

Gilles said she hopes the training will help to encourage freedom of speech on campus.

“In classes, you’ll have professors who have a very clear leaning one way, and so there’s kind of a discomfort speaking up in classes and expressing your own political views,” Gilles said. 

Julie Roosa, adjunct assistant professor in journalism and First Amendment specialist at Iowa State, said students have expressed that the training is “another thing to get through, and maybe not to get [information] from.” However, she believes the training is a “good start” to educating students about freedom of speech.

“In and of itself, in a vacuum, it’s not nearly enough to help students understand how the First Amendment works,” Roosa said. “The First Amendment is really messy, and it’s not black and white.”

According to Roosa, the training has not received as much participation as the Board had hoped. 

As of Wednesday, 7,341 students, 1,148 faculty and 3,933 staff had completed the training.

In fall 2021, student enrollment was 30,708, meaning approximately 24% of all students completed the training. Based off of the 2019 faculty headcount of 1,910 faculty members, about 60% of faculty completed the training.

Roosa said online trainings are not an optimal method of educating students about free speech. She feels adding classes that are available campus-wide would be more effective because it allows students to discuss the amendment in-depth.

“We just expect students to come to this campus and know how to…interact in the marketplace of ideas, and they don’t have that training yet,” Roosa said. “They don’t know how to have critical discussions and listen to other people’s viewpoints, even if you disagree with them.”

While students may not take the training seriously, the word mandatory holds more weight for faculty and staff. Since the training is required by their employer, they could face consequences if the training module is not completed. 

“I do think employers can require employees to take certain steps, and just because we’re a public university, it doesn’t change that dynamic,” Roosa said. “There probably would be ways to penalize or discipline an employee who doesn’t do what is asked of them.”

Tracy Lucht, associate professor of journalism, said the training was a way to “check the box.”

“I just remember feeling that I should’ve been able to test out of it,” Lucht said. “It’s very basic. There was nothing in there that was objectionable; it wasn’t that enlightening.” 

Lucht emphasized that she did not learn anything new from the training.

“I think that this was more performative and meant to demonstrate our commitment to the First Amendment rather than actually educating us about the First Amendment,” Lucht said. 

The Board of Regents contracted Six Red Marbles, a company specializing in educational content, to develop the training. According to Rouse, they collaborated with First Amendment experts to create the training. 

However, Roosa was not consulted to help with the training, despite being the only First Amendment specialist at Iowa State. 

“We have a First Amendment specialist within this school, and I wish that the university would tap into that position and our overall expertise a little bit more than they usually do,” Lucht said. 

Students can access the training on Canvas while faculty must complete it through the Learn@ISU platform. 

The training is estimated to take 15-20 minutes to complete. Roosa said it took her less than 10 minutes to complete, and she felt there were no major takeaways from the content provided.  

“In some ways, you ask yourself with these mandatory trainings, what is the goal, and are they meeting that goal?” Roosa said. 

Roosa believes the Board implemented free speech education in order to address concerns about the silencing of conservative political beliefs.

“There’s a theory that conservative voices are being silenced on university campuses, not just here at Iowa State or in Iowa, but nationwide,” Roosa said. “I think politicians were looking for a way to correct that notion.”

Roosa said research may not support the idea that there is an “overt mission” to silence conservative students. However, she said this perception was important to discuss.

Prior to creating the training, the Board of Regents conducted a survey about students’ perceptions of free speech on campus. The overall response rate for students across Iowa’s three public universities was 10.2%.

According to the survey, 59% of students disagreed with the statement, “In general, other students at my university are good at seeking out and listening to people with different views.” 

The survey also revealed that 34% of students disagree with the statement, “The university does not restrict speech on campus, even when it makes people feel uncomfortable.” 

Slightly more than half of students, or 56%, agreed that “The environment at my university allows me to say things I believe even though others may find them offensive.” 

Lucht feels the training module will not have a significant impact on Iowa State’s campus. 

“I’m an absolute staunch believer in the First Amendment,” Lucht said. “I’m not really sure, though, that this training would lead anyone to express themselves any differently than they would have otherwise.”