CEDAR FALLS — A national debate is playing out here about free speech on college campuses and whether conservative viewpoints, such as opposition to abortion rights, are being restricted.
Student government leaders at the University of Northern Iowa this week denied students’ request to form a local chapter of Students for Life of America, a national nonprofit that opposes abortion, saying that allowing the student group to form could create a hostile environment on campus.
Students for Life appealed to the student Supreme Court, another wing of the student government, which on Wednesday upheld the earlier decision and denied the student group’s ability to form.
The court’s majority decision states that the Students for Life application is “lacking in evidence of being an equitable, just, and welcoming student organization for our students and community found on campus of the University of Northern Iowa.”
That may not be the last word, however. The decision is being appealed to UNI President Mark Nook.
Some members of the student Supreme Court issued a dissenting opinion, which says that members of the legislative branch of the student government knew they were breaking school policy by denying the student group’s right to form.
“The majority opinion has predicted actions of UNI Students for Life — sowing unrest on campus and depriving others of their rights — that go far beyond the logical scope of this case,” the dissenting opinion reads.
The UNI administration issued a statement last week saying that it would not uphold decisions that violate the First Amendment and university policy.
“The University of Northern Iowa is committed to protecting our students’ First Amendment rights and is concerned that recent actions by the student government violated UNI policy by rendering a decision that was not content-neutral,” the statement reads.
Students for Life organizers have contacted legal counsel.
“Despite the school’s own rules that viewpoint discrimination is not acceptable, student government leaders attacked fellow students for their pro-life views and denied a request for a new club based on their personal support of abortion,” reads a statement released Friday by Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins.
Students for Life of America is a national nonprofit advocating to end abortion through youth activism. There are more than 1,250 chapters in all 50 states, mostly on college campuses, with some chapters at high schools and middle schools.
The majority decision of the student Supreme Court says that Students for Life’s application lacks a “good faith” policy requirement needed to form a student group. UNI policies say that registration of a student organization does not imply that the student government endorses the viewpoints or activities of the organization.
Students for Life is intertwined in a national debate over whether colleges are discriminating against conservative viewpoints. Students for Life of America has praised President Donald Trump’s 2019 Executive Order on free speech on college campuses and taken part in an Evangelicals for Trump campaign event.
UNI is one of three public universities governed by Iowa’s Board of Regents. The two other universities are already enmeshed in skirmishes about free speech.
The University of Iowa is in the midst of a legal battle after a Christian student group banned a gay man from leadership based on religious values. In BLinC v. University of Iowa, the student group is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to side with the group’s decision to bar the student from the group.
Iowa State University took “corrective action” in August after a professor’s syllabus prohibited students from submitting material that opposed Black Lives Matter, gay marriage, abortion and other topics.
UNI’s student Supreme Court argued in its majority decision that Students for Life’s proposed student group constitution was vague. It also said that its ties to the national organization have the potential to create a hostile environment.
“The University has spent the last year advocating for diversity on campus, (and) allowing this organization will not support the progress that has been made through the efforts of other students and campus organizations,” the Supreme Court majority decision reads. “The national chapter for Students For Life does not uphold the morals/standards nor policies when it comes to equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice that are found here at the University of Northern Iowa.”
In reference to a school policy that mandates all students should be treated with dignity and respect, the student Supreme Court wrote that “Allowing this organization that openly disregards the rights of women and other subsequent groups is not demonstrating or upholding this policy.”
UNI’s policy on discriminatory harassment defines a hostile environment as “one that unreasonably interferes with, limits, or effectively denies an individual’s educational or employment access, benefits, or opportunities. This discriminatory effect results from harassing verbal, written, graphic, or physical conduct that is severe or pervasive and objectively offensive.”