University counsel discusses Foundation for Individual Rights in Education red light rating

Matt Wettengel

The red light rating Iowa State holds from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education isn’t cause for much alarm for the Office of University Counsel.

Keith Bystrom, associate counsel for the office, attended the lecture presented by Adam Kissel, vice president of programs for FIRE, Thursday and believes that most of the logic behind the university’s ratings are based off misinterpretations of the rhetoric used in the policies and a lack of context for the things that are included in them.

By providing some context for each of the policies flagged by FIRE, Bystrom explained that the policies are created and maintained to benefit members of the university and create a safe environment.

The university’s discrimination and harassment policy received a red light rating because of the examples list that is included, which was interpreted by Kissel to designate any instance of pranks or jokes as a violation of the policy.

“I’m surprised that he would look at our discrimination policy and say that it’s the examples that are the problems. To us it’s the examples that help people get a picture of some of the things that can cause problems and that’s why [they’re in the policy],” Bystrom said.

Bystrom pointed to the sentence before the examples list, which classifies harassment as “a form of discrimination if it is unwelcome and sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to substantially interfere with a person’s work or education,” to clarify that not all jokes and pranks would be classified as harassment.

“What our policy is saying is that you might cross the line, it depends on what you do,” Bystrom said. “Any kind of harassment is very contextual, and [we’re] looking at what happens, what are the circumstances and does it reach the level where it’s harassment.”

This applies to the Internet usage policy, which received a yellow light rating because of its prohibiting of the sending of unsolicited emails. There are circumstances that require the university to get involved when unsolicited emails are received, often having to do with relationships, Bystrom said.

The yellow light rating that FIRE gave to the Facilities and Grounds Use were made because of a misinterpretation of the university’s policy, Bystrom said. In Kissel’s lecture Thursday, he explained that the policy received a yellow light rating because it requires that anyone planning to use the designated public forum areas tell the university if they want to exercise free speech. This is only the case if they plan to use the area before or after 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, if the event will be held within 100 feet from buildings that normally hold classes, or if a crowd of more than 50 people is expected, Bystrom said.

Bystrom said the policy is in place to allow normal activities to take place without unprecedented disruptions and to prevent the disruption of the mission of the university, which is to educate students.

“That’s why we have rules like that,” Bystrom said. “We have the ‘number of people rule’ and we also have the ‘no amplification rule.’ Those are time, place and manner things. If you’re going to amplify and be louder than what a normal person could say with their voice, then it increases the likelihood of disrupting our mission, which is to educate and do research here on campus.”

Throughout various First Amendment Day activities, Dylan Boyle, president of the Leo Mores Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and senior in journalism and mass communication, collected signatures on a petition to rid the campus of free speech zones, and make the entire ISU campus a free speech zone. After a conversation with Bystrom about the policy, Boyle said the group needs to look further into the issue before taking any more action with its petition, which received between 70 and 100 signatures.

“A key point with the petition was that we were demonstrating the right to petition [provided by the First Amendment],” Boyle said.

FIRE’s right to interpret schools’ policies is yet another right provided to them by the First Amendment, Bystrom said.

“We have a number of communications from FIRE and similar organizations, and it does cause us to look at our policies, and we have,” Bystrom said. “Evaluating our policies is an ongoing thing, and there may be some changes in wording. There is probably some language in some of our policies that’s outdated and might be able to be updated some.”

Overall, Bystrom felt that Kissel’s final message was a valuable one for students; to be informed, speak up and participate in the marketplace of ideas that is their college campus. If students have issues with any of the policies in place at Iowa State, he encouraged them to take their concerns to the Government of the Student Body or the Dean of Students Office.