Lawsuit filed against Iowa State focused on three policies


The Campanile and the carillon are frequently known as the “Bells of Iowa State.” The Campanile stands tall with 50,000 bricks and 50 bells.

Sage Smith

This article has been updated to include President Wendy Wintersteen’s statement.

A lawsuit was filed against Iowa State University Thursday by the nonprofit membership association, Speech First, in Speech First v. Wintersteen et. al, according to a Speech First press release.

“We filed the case on behalf of some of our student members at Iowa State University,” said Nicole Neily, president and founder of Speech First. “We’re challenging three specific policies that we believe infringe upon our student’s First Amendment rights.”

The first of the three policies is the chalking ban. According to the suit, “This chalking policy was instituted to quell ‘offensive’ and political speech. And it allows only registered student organizations to advertise events to the exclusion of all other students, in violation of both the First Amendment and Iowa’s campus free-speech law. Under the University’s policy, students who “chalk” an unauthorized message face discipline.”

The second of the policies is the a prohibition on student emails related to political campaigns and elections. 

“The University’s Acceptable Use of Information Technology Resources Policy prohibits students from using email to communicate about campaigns and ballot issues,” according to the lawsuit. “This content-based prohibition on core protected speech is backed by the threat of formal discipline.”

The third of the policies Speech First is including is the Campus Climate Reporting System.

“Third, the University employs a Campus Climate Reporting System (‘CCRS’), a team of University administrators who respond to ‘bias incidents’ and refer them to the University’s ‘administrative unit partners’ for investigations,” according to the lawsuit.”‘[R]eflect[ing] a similar motivation as hate crimes,’ bias incidents include speech (on and off campus) that someone perceives as ‘demeaning,’ ‘taunting,’ ‘bullying,’ ‘verbal harassment,’ or ‘intimidation.’ Students accused of engaging in ‘bias incidents’ risk referral to University officials for investigation and discipline. Yet the definition of ‘bias incident’—the trigger for these consequences—encompasses wide swaths of protected expression. The CCRS poses a grave risk of chilling the open and unfettered discourse that should be central to higher education.”

Neily said Speech First decided to go ahead with the case after she had spent several weeks speaking with Iowa State’s students.

Speech First will be filing a motion for preliminary injunction in the next couple of days to temporarily halt the policies while the case works through the system, Neily said.

Speech First has asked the court to declare Iowa State’s chalking ban, email prohibition on political speech and Campus Climate Response System unconstitutional and to issue an injunction to prohibit Iowa State from banning the chalking and electronic correspondence.

This is the fourth lawsuit filed by Speech First in the past two years. Speech First has two currently open cases with the University of Texas and the University of Illinois. They recently settled their case with the University of Michigan.

When reached out to for comment, the Office of the President directed the Daily to Angela Hunt, interim director of media relations in the Office of Strategic Relations and Communications.

Hunt sent a statement from President Wintersteen Saturday evening in an email to the Daily: 

“Iowa State University does not punish individuals for their constitutionally protected rights to expression, nor do we have policies or practices that prohibit expression based on the content of the expression or the viewpoint of the speaker,” Wintersteen said in the statement. “As a public institution, Iowa State University fully embraces its role as a First Amendment campus and is deeply committed to constitutional protections of free expression. The protections afforded by the First Amendment and similar provisions in the Iowa Constitution are core values of the university and are foundational to the university’s mission to create, share, and apply knowledge to make Iowa and the world a better place. Constitutional free speech provisions are designed to establish and protect the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ that is a fundamental characteristic of university life.

“In light of our commitment to these constitutional values, our campus has been and will continue to be a place where a diversity of ideas and thoughts will be expressed and debated. In this past semester, we have had numerous speakers and guests expressing a wide variety of thought. We have had political candidates and elected officials from all political parties on campus and held open forums where political issues were discussed and debated. Unfortunately, our campus has also experienced bigoted, hateful, racist, and anti-Semitic messaging that, while protected by the First Amendment, is also hurtful and harmful to many students.

“Iowa State University also takes seriously its obligation mandated by federal law to create and maintain a campus that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment. Iowa State University will continue to champion the First Amendment in our efforts to create a campus where all individuals and ideas are welcome and included.”