Campus free speech passed through the Iowa House on Thursday by a narrow vote of 51-44. Losing any of the aye votes would have resulted in the bill failing.
Representative Dustin Hite (R-Oskaloosa) managed the bill through the House floor. He said nothing is more fundamental to the free exchange of ideas than the idea of free speech.
“House File 661 ensures that public universities and community colleges continue that tradition of the free exchange of ideas and free speech,” he said.
The bill states public colleges and universities cannot deny benefits and privileges to student organizations simply because those organizations require their leaders to adhere to and support their beliefs.
And that is what Democrats took exception to.
Representative Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton) filed an amendment.
Wolfe’s amendment would’ve stripped the portion of the bill that prohibits a public institution from denying any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization’s requirements that the leaders of the student organization agree to and support the student organization’s beliefs as those beliefs are interpreted by the organization and to further the student organization’s mission.
“I think we all know what that means,” Wolfe said. “It means that under this provision we are codifying the right of student organizations to violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act and to discriminate against their peers who do not share their exact values or beliefs by denying them the opportunity to hold leadership positions in the student organizations.”
In essence, a Christian group could have a policy that requires its leaders to adhere to Christian beliefs, and Wolfe believes that is wrong. Supporters of the bill say homosexuals could still participate in such a group, they just can’t be leaders of a group if the group believes homosexuality is wrong.
“Members of a protected class can be second-class citizens,” she said. “All my amendment does is say ‘Nope. Nope student organizations, you are bound by the Iowa Civil Rights Act.'”
Hite encouraged members of the House to oppose the amendment. The sentence Wolfe wanted to remove, he said, was simple.
“It means the University of Iowa cannot deny a Jewish student group because the group requires its leaders to be Jewish,” he said.
College Democrat groups couldn’t be denied because of a “wild idea” that its leaders ought to be Democrats, he said.
Wolfe said the bill doesn’t respect college students and promotes discrimination. Her amendment failed 51-45, but was supported by Rep. Andy McKean (R-Anamosa).
House File 661 was substituted for Senate File 274.
Representative Liz Bennett (D-Cedar Rapids) spoke against the bill, saying it will usher in discrimination at Iowa’s community colleges and public universities.
“This is state-sponsored discrimination,” Bennett said.
Freshman Rep. Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield) stood to speak in favor of the bill, saying dedication to the freedoms being debated is what caused America to be the greatest nation the world has known.
“I consider voting for this bill to be one of the greatest honors of my life,” Shipley said.
Fellow Republican Rep. Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville) said the bill does not legalize discrimination. Instead, she said, it prohibits discrimination against religious belief and freedom of expression. Student groups would not be allowed to discriminate against people who wish to join.
“That is absolutely not true,” she said. “This is allowing groups to be able to require their leaders to adhere to the beliefs and the mission of the group. In the particular instance we’re talking about that brought this whole thing forward about allowing a Christian group to require their leaders to adhere to a Christian statement of faith, a Christian statement of sexual ethic and practice — that is different than who a person is.
“If a group cannot require its leaders to adhere to its faith and its beliefs and its mission, then that group loses its purpose and loses its effectiveness and loses its ability to function.”
Representative Ruth Ann Gaines (D-Des Moines) echoed the voice of just about every Democrat who spoke, claiming the bill is discriminatory.
“I would hope that as good politicians, people who represent the constituency of Iowa, that if any bill was going to be proposed that had any element of discrimination implied in it, that a person who represents a diverse group would be consulted,” she said. “Obviously that didn’t happen in this bill. So no wonder people don’t see the discrimination, because you haven’t experienced it.
“Where are we going as a state? Come on people, it’s 2019. If you don’t understand something, if you can’t see the discrimination in it, well ask. Don’t go to your computer screen and do something else. Don’t look at us like we’re crazy. Find out what we’re really talking about and then maybe we can educate you on what it is that we know from experience.”
Hite wrapped up debate by noting the bill passed the Iowa Senate in a bipartisan manner.
“I’ve been told this Capitol is a magical place, and I believe that too,” he said. “Apparently one of the most magical places is that rotunda out there. This bill was voted on by the senate last week. It received bipartisan support. It made its way across the rotunda, it’s here now, and now it’s a partisan issue. I don’t understand it.”
He wondered if everyone was reading the same part of the bill. Nobody would be excluded from any group. The sentence simply states groups must be protected to ensure its leadership believes what the group believes.
The groups will still choose their own leadership.
“It’s about beliefs, people,” Hite said. “That’s all. It says organizations get to choose their own rules. Our students get to choose their own rules. I have faith in the students of Iowa, that they can make the right decision. The thought of free speech is the thought about exactly what we do in this chamber every single day. We talk about issues we agree on and we disagree on. It is my job is to convince you to agree with me, not tell you to agree with me. That’s what this bill does.”