BLOGHow One University is Trying to Silence Student Speech

By Sarah Kramer Posted on: | October 18, 2016

Roadblocks to college graduation can take on various forms, whether it be financial, academic, personal, or otherwise.  But for Robert Dunn, it was his own university that set a roadblock squarely in his path.

Robert, a student at Iowa State University, is a Christian as well as the founder and president of a conservative student group on campus, ISU Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). And he was looking forward to graduating. 

Then, earlier this year, university officials at Iowa State University sent out an email to the student body, announcing a new mandatory online training program regarding the university’s nondiscrimination policies and procedures. The training required students to pledge that they understood and would comply with university speech policies. As Robert went through the course, he realized that he could not make the pledge.

The university was asking Robert to sign away his free speech in order to graduate.

The university policies he would be forced to pledge compliance to expressly violate the First Amendment. One policy admits that “First Amendment protected speech activities” may constitute punishable harassment “depending on the circumstances.” Of course, since the policy doesn’t identify the “circumstances,” it just means that ISU administrators can limit “First Amendment protected speech activities” on their own whim. 

Another ISU policy allows for punishment of student speech where other students (or administrators) believe the speech is not “legitimate,” not “necessary,” or lacks a “constructive purpose.” And when National Review writer David French spoke on campus, a faculty member told Robert that school administrators had stated that merely expressing opposition to same sex marriage could be deemed “harassment.”

With other YAF chapters across the country facing censorship by their universities – including this one where faculty and administrators tried to shut down a conservative speaking event both through discriminatory fees and then literally inciting others to block entry, this YAF chapter which was told they could not hand out literature at the student fair, this chapter which was denied access to student organization funding, or this chapter which was denied funding for an event which the university deemed “too political” – Robert was understandably concerned.

When Robert inquired about the policy and the ramifications he would face if he refused to sign it, he was told that his graduation could be put on hold and that he would be placed on a list of students for “review” by the dean of students.

That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit against the university yesterday on Robert’s behalf. All Americans are guaranteed free speech under our Constitution, and that right should never be taken away simply because students are not speaking a “university-approved” message.

Christian and conservative students should never be punished for expressing their beliefs, and that’s why ADF is standing with Robert to challenge Iowa State’s unconstitutional policy.

Students Do Not Have to Surrender Their Free Speech in Order to Graduate

These types of anti-free speech policies are too often used to silence Christian and conservative students on campus. And worse still, they are teaching generations of college students that the Constitution means whatever a government bureaucrat says it means. We must defend the First Amendment right to free speech for all public university students, both because their own rights are important on campus, but also because today’s students will be tomorrow’s government officials. Tomorrow’s battle for the First Amendment in our culture begins today on our campuses. 

Cases like Robert’s are not isolated and are occurring on campuses across the country. Your generous gift, which will be doubled by a matching grant, can help us continue to provide legal services to these college students free of charge. 


Sarah Kramer

Digital Content Specialist

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

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