230 years later, we are still reminded of free speech

EBONI SPRINGFIELD

The return to campus has been long-awaited by students, faculty and staff. As young scholars fill the seats of classrooms and cafeterias, student organizations fill laptops with content and information, athletes and gravity defiers push limits in the Wellness and Recreation Center, there is one thing students must know. 

There is a new free speech policy recognized by all Iowa state universities. The Board of Regents and the state of Iowa have made sure the thoughts and beliefs of students are welcomed and encouraged on UNI’s campus. This applies to every student, no matter how big or small the idea may be, or how common or unpopular the opinion. 

Interestingly enough, in 2021, all three Iowa state universities need to be reminded of what it means for a campus to support free speech even though this basic human right has been protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution since 1791, almost 230 years ago. 

As a state university, UNI is now required to recognize and uphold the laws created by the state and federal governments. The new syllabus statement can be found on the UNI website for the Office of the Provost and the Executive VP for Academic Affairs, as well as every syllabus. For further clarifications and guidelines you can visit the Iowa Board of Regents Website at iowaregents.edu, article 4.2 title Freedom of Expression. 

The University of Northern Iowa has added to the required syllabus statement, highlighting free speech to be reviewed at the beginning of each course. The statement reads as follows: 

The University of Northern Iowa supports and upholds the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and the principles of academic and artistic freedom. We encourage the free and responsible exchange of diverse ideas on our campus. The University is committed to open inquiry and the spirited and thoughtful debate of such ideas. 

Freedom of speech as defined by the legal dictionary is a person’s right to speak his or her own opinions, beliefs, or ideas, without having to fear that the government will retaliate against them, restrict them, or censor them in any way. Because this is part of the first amendment every student at UNI is legally able and encouraged to use their voice to amplify the messages they find important. 

UNI student Kristyn Osborne, a social sciences education major, feels it is important for students to express themselves freely on campus. 

“The guaranteed protection to express my personal beliefs, and the things I believe are right,… in any setting,” she said.

Most Recent History

UNI brought their focus to freedom of speech on campus after an incident in Oct. 2020, when student group Students for Life (SFL) applied to be recognized as an official student organization and were denied by the Northern Iowa Student Government (NISG), and labeled a “hate group.” This group of students was sure to meet all criteria set by UNI for new student organizations.

Despite their thoroughness, they were denied their right to express their beliefs a second time when the student body supreme court denied their appeal. Although this decision was eventually overruled by UNI president, Mark Nook, these students have experienced an undeniable restraint of their liberties on this campus. 

The focus on feeling comfortable and protected in expressing thoughts and ideas weighs heavily on UNI students. Freedom of speech allows for a diverse collection of thoughts and ideas among the student body and a way to learn from others and view different perspectives. This opportunity is given to students as UNI requires professors to announce the new specification. There were mixed reactions among students. Several students had the opportunity to review the syllabus statement with their professors, while having in depth discussions in class about respectfully debating and sharing ideas. 

According to UNI’s website the Syllabus Free Speech Statement will be reviewed at the beginning of each course. We have seen in the past, statements made by the university following events that infringe on or discriminate against students, however following through with those efforts and fulfilling promises has been an issue. Several students interviewed by the Northern Iowan reflected on the fact that the new syllabus statement has not been highlighted upon during classes. 

Tabby Robison, a senior studying Environmental Resource Management and Recreation, Tourism, and Nonprofit Leadership at UNI mentioned reviewing the clause on her own time. 

“None of my professors have highlighted it, but I did read it in the UNI newsletter,” Robinson said. 

One full week into the semester and some were even shocked to hear that there was a new required statement. 

Christiana Downey, a senior Marketing major at UNI, expressed that she had not seen or heard any emphasis about the new freedom of speech statement 

“I know nothing about it,” she said. 

The coming together of ideas and beliefs is what makes this campus beautiful. It brings diversity amongst students and the ability to gain real-world experience with accepting and honoring views of which differ from each other. 

Melissa Hoffman, a senior family services major, speaks on the importance of support.

“We all have freedom of speech, and we are all protected under it,… I want to feel protected, I want to feel heard, I want students to be able to say what they need to say and feel like the university is behind us.” 

Part 2: The Student Perspective 

In regards to how students feel free speech affects them on campus, it is understood that all views should be accepted. However, in regards to freedom of speech, there comes a point where students feel there needs to be a line drawn. Alexis Moeller, a senior at UNI believes, 

“When you put yourself or other people in danger or in a position to be hurt in any way shape or form then it becomes a violation of free speech and you’ve taken it too far.” 

Similarly, Osborne stated, 

“Technically you can argue that anything is free speech if you are saying it, but I think that there should be a line when it starts to infringe on the rights of others.” 

Many times students feel this line is crossed, and many times, in actuality, no laws have been broken. It’s how these differing viewpoints are responded to that shows character and complete understanding of what it means to respect freedom of speech. 

“Even if it’s something that you don’t agree with, you still can’t treat them any differently than someone who you do agree with when you’re in a professional or academic setting,” says Robinson. 

Although there is no legal action that can be taken, there are many ways students can effectively stand their ground when encountering differing views. Students may handle situations differently, as there are many ways to respect the rights of others. Many students may choose to respectfully use their voice to amplify their message and bring awareness to what they believe. 

When speaking about how to counteract offensive free speech Robinson refers to the “Campus Preachers” that come to campus and spew hateful words to students when recognizing Elle Boeding, previous Student Body President. Boeding was able to empower students to use their voice by using campus resources to allow students to make signs and protest negativity brought to campus under the first amendment. 

Respectfully responding to differing viewpoints could be as simple as removing oneself from a certain situation or blocking people or posts if someone’s use of free speech negatively affects them. 

The coming together of ideas and beliefs is what makes this campus beautiful. It brings diversity amongst students and the ability to gain real-world experience with accepting and honoring views of which differ from each other. As a university UNI prides itself on the community it has created for students to feel welcomed and at home. At home you should feel immersed in support and understanding, and so as a student on this campus feel comfortable speaking up for what you believe in, and understand that your beliefs are safe to be relayed, and need to be expressed.

As a university UNI prides itself on the community it has created for students to feel welcomed and at home. At home you should feel immersed in support and understanding, and so as a student on this campus feel comfortable speaking up for what you believe in, and understand that your beliefs are safe to be relayed, and need to be expressed.