Professors at Iowa State University (ISU), a public university in central Iowa, will not be allowed to teach certain “defined concepts” to students in required classes, even if the concept is germane to the course’s subject matter.
The policy was announced this summer in response to a new state law, HB802, which prohibits public schools from implementing mandatory “race and sex stereotyping” training that incorporates “defined concepts,” such as ideas that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” or “that an individual, by virtue or the individual or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” More than a dozen other states including New Hampshire and Missouri have also passed bills that limit how public schools can talk about racism and sexism.
According to the university’s website, ISU believes the law applies not only to “mandatory trainings,” but to any academic course that a student is required to take to complete a major or minor where the student does has no “or very limited alternative courses from which to select that do not incorporate the specific defined concepts.”
Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education’s Individual Rights Defense Program, told First Amendment Watch that ISU’s policy goes further than the lawmakers intended–the law was only meant to apply to mandatory training, not classroom activity.
“The university is reading into the law an expansive interpretation of what it prohibits, as the doesn’t purport to reach classroom teaching, only training,” Steinbaugh said. He also said the school has gone back and forth about whether ISU professors will be allowed to teach the divisive concepts outlined in HB802 if they are germane to class discussion.
“ISU is telling the media—correctly—that the First Amendment protects the right to discuss material that is relevant to a particular class. So if a class on U.S. history discusses whether the Constitution’s three-fifths clause renders the United States ‘fundamentally or systemically racist,’ that discussion would be germane and protected by the First Amendment. But in their policy, ISU says that germane material may violate the law if the class is required so that discussion would be prohibited if the class were mandatory for any one student. That means ISU views its faculty members’ First Amendment rights as subordinate to state statute and university policy, which is not how the constitution works,” Steinbaugh said.
On July 27th, Steinbaugh sent a letter to ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert warning him that the ISU policy misinterprets the law and infringes on the academic freedom of professors.
In response to the letter, an ISU spokesperson told the press that they did not think the school’s policies violate the First Amendment, and that the school’s interpretation of the law is the correct one.