Leef documents public university’s attack on First Amendment rights

George Leef’s latest Forbes column focuses on Iowa State University’s assault on students’ First Amendment rights.

Just how desperately college and university administrators want to control what students say lest anyone take offense or feel “harassed” is revealed by a policy adopted at Iowa State University (ISU).

ISU students are told that they must abide by the school’s policy against “harassment” of anyone in the university community. Students must complete a “training program” consisting of 118 slides online, covering the university’s non-harassment policies and procedures, and then pledge never to violate them.

But what if a student thinks that the ISU policy goes way beyond preventing true harassment and amounts to an abridgement of his rights under the First Amendment?

In that case, ISU reserves the right to withhold the student’s degree. So either the student agrees to abide by the policy even though it may well keep him from speaking out as he’d like to, or have his academic work go for naught. This is the exact dilemma an ISU student, Robert Dunn finds himself in.

He regarded the ISU strictures against harassment to be so sweeping and vague that he couldn’t pledge never to say anything that might violate them.

Particularly troubling was the language that the rules “may cover those activities which, although not severe, persistent, or pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of harassment, are unacceptable…” and that “even 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.”

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...