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Supreme Court of the United States

One Student’s Stand Restores Free Speech at Iowa State University

By Sarah Kramer posted on:
October 17, 2017

There’s good news for students at Iowa State University—and an upcoming graduation ceremony will include one student whose pending walk across the stage was not so certain.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by Alliance Defending Freedom and yesterday’s settlement, Iowa State University revised its unconstitutional speech policies and their demand that students sign away their free speech rights in order to graduate.

Under the troubling speech codes, speech could be deemed punishable “harassment” merely if it “annoy[ed]” another student and the school claimed the authority to treat as “harassment,” speech that was not “pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of harassment.”  ISU even acknowledged that First Amendment protected speech could be punished, saying “First Amendment protected speech activities” may constitute harassment “depending on the circumstances,” including whether other students believe the speech is not “legitimate,” not “necessary,” or lacks a “constructive purpose.”

But no university policy should ever trump the First Amendment. And thanks to one Iowa State student taking a stand, constitutional freedoms are being restored to their rightful place on campus.

That student is Robert Dunn, the president and founder of the politically conservative student group ISU Young Americans for Freedom. When he reviewed the school’s mandatory training on its speech policies (all 118 PowerPoint slides of it), he knew he could not agree to pledge his “understanding and compliance” with the unconstitutional portions of these speech codes. 

His experience also gave him pause, knowing that conservative views on marriage and other topics had been discouraged under the policies in the past. And as a conservative student on a modern university campus, he knew that simply expressing his opinion on any number of topics could be deemed “offensive” or “annoying” (or worse) to some. But a university employee with the Office of Equal Opportunity explained to Dunn that he would receive a “hold” on his graduation if he did not sign the policy.

So, he contacted Alliance Defending Freedom, and we filed a lawsuit against Iowa State on his behalf.

“The First Amendment requires America’s public colleges and universities to recognize the constitutionally protected freedoms of all students,” said ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, Director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “We commend the university for agreeing to correct its policies so that students no longer have to give up free speech in order to graduate.”


One Student Can Make a Difference for Free Speech on Campus


By restoring free speech on campus, not only are students like Robert Dunn making a difference for their peers, but also for generations to come. After all, today’s Iowa State University students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, teachers, and voters. It is dangerous to teach students that government, here university officials, may claim the power to punish any speech they don’t like.

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Sarah Kramer

Sarah Kramer

Digital Content Specialist

Sarah worked as an investigative reporter before joining the Alliance Defending Freedom team.