Discriminatory free speech bill moves through Iowa legislature


View of the State Capitol building in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jake Webster

The Iowa Senate passed Senate File 274 by a margin of 35-11-3 Monday, which would allow student groups at regent universities to enforce religious rules barring certain identities from taking leadership roles within them.

The Iowa House of Representatives would have to pass this bill and it would have to be signed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds before it could become law. The Republican party has a narrow 54-46 majority in the lower house.

A controversial section of the bill would allow for student groups to bar LGBTQIA+ individuals from leadership positions in their organizations if their sexuality, gender identity or expression run counter to the beliefs or mission of the organization.

Student Government had previously voted to endorse this bill, however, many senators did not fully understand the legislation when they voted.

After voting to endorse the legislation, many senators said they changed their opinions of the bill once they learned what it actually contained, saying the way the bill was presented to them did not explain the discriminatory nature of the controversial section.

Student Government rescinded their endorsement of the bill March 6, amidst a sit-in protest by members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Sen. Jacob Schrader, who authored the Student Government bill to endorse this legislation at the time, said an adequate explanation of the bill was given to senators before Student Government endorsed the legislation.

“I am personally in favor of the bill in its entirety and I am happy that the Iowa Senate has taken the time to ensure that student’s rights to the freedom of speech and the freedom of association are adequately protected at our public institutions,” Schrader said of the Iowa Senate passing the bill Monday.

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (D-Ames) voted no on this legislation as it passed the judiciary committee.

Wessel-Kroeschell said she has concerns with the section that allows groups to override the nondiscrimination policies of universities and those of the state, and will vote no if the bill reaches the House floor. However, she said the rest of the bill was fine and she probably would have voted for it otherwise.

This bill is similar in content to one from the previous legislative session that came in the wake of a federal court case between the University of Iowa and a religious student group on its campus.

The federal judge in the case ruled in favor of the group called Business Leaders in Christ, who had prevented a gay member from taking a leadership position in the organization.

The University of Iowa had tried to deregister the student organization for violating a policy, saying,  “The University’s Human Rights Policy prohibits student organizations from restricting membership or access to leadership positions on any protected status such as race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to federal court documents.

“This just hurts individuals from the LGBTQ community, any group that has faced discrimination in the past can face discrimination [if the bill becomes law],” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

There are conflicting views between those who say that this bill is meant to protect free speech and freedom of association, and those who say that the bill is discriminatory and can be used to harm groups that face and have faced discrimination if passed into law.

College Democrats President Taylor Blair said the bill is discriminatory, and he created a “translated” version of the controversial section of the bill, “translating” the language of the legislation to what he said is his interpretation of what it means, saying in part “the First Amendment is interpreted to protect an organization’s ability to be prejudiced in an active and exclusionary way towards historically and currently marginalized groups.”

The original language of the legislation that Blair “translated” is: “protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

Alternatively, many of the College Republicans were in favor of this legislation.

College Republicans President Jacob Minock said he was glad this bill passed the Iowa Senate, and it will be interesting to see how it does in the Iowa House of Representatives.

Rep. Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield) introduced this bill in the Iowa House of Representatives.

Shipley said he was unaware of the controversy that the bill had generated with Student Government. Shipley said student activity fees belong to students and any time there are bureaucrats interfering in how students run their student organizations, then bureaucrats are infringing on students’ First Amendment rights.