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House Dems. cautiously supporting free speech on-campus bill

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UI College of Dentistry building in Iowa City on Tuesday

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) - A bill that would protect free speech for college students at Iowa's three public universities but restrict speech for their administrators passed through a full House committee Tuesday.

Republicans drafted the bill after several instances where they thought students or groups were silenced and penalized for their viewpoints.

"There are certain instances where any of the three regents, it's totally appropriate for them to take a stance --certainly when it deals with education; University of Iowa when it deals with health care," Rep. Dustin Hite, R-Mahaska County, said.

"It's these other things that are outside of that where the institution shouldn't be taking a stance and the people in the institution should not be taking a stance as the institution," Hite said.

One example of this was an email from University of Iowa College of Dentistry Dean David Johnsen in October. Johnsen, speaking on behalf of the college and its leadership, condemned an executive order by then President Trump.

A student in the college responded to the entire email list, disagreeing with administrators and questioning their motives. That student was summoned for a disciplinary hearing but it was eventually canceled. Executive Order 13950 was also ruled unconstitutional and rescinded by the Biden administration.

Dean Johnsen announced last week he would be stepping down one year early from his role, at the end of this current semester.

In response to this, Republicans drafted HSB 237. The bill would prohibit resources from being used for partisan activities, make administrators consult the state Board of Regents before speaking "as an institution", and restrict discrimination based on viewpoints.

"I think the whole country should have training on First Amendment. So, I support that part," Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, said.

Several Democrats supported the bill Tuesday as it passed the judiciary committee by a vote of 20-1. Bohannan was the lone "no".

"It's too strict of a rule. We need to have a more nuanced rule that the Board of Regents can work on in collaboration with the universities," Bohannan said.

As a law professor at the U of I, Bohannan has several concerns how it could impact her and her colleagues. First, she thinks the bill doesn't consider that universities do support partisan clubs, like the College Republicans.

Secondly, she thinks it would inhibit her from grading a paper fairly that covers political issues.

While both parties have agreed the bill's language needs to be refined, Democrats have been louder in asking for changes. Bohannan said Tuesday she was hoping the changes would have been added before the committee meeting.

Amendments or wording changes are expected as the bill moves to the full House floor for debate.

The Board of Regents passed its own version of free speech reforms at a meeting last Wednesday. Those changes are not quite as restricting for staff as what's being proposed in the legislature.

A spokesperson for the board said they are following HSB 237 and willing to collaborate with lawmakers.

"We are continuing to monitor the language of the bill and will follow it as it moves through the legislative process. We always are willing to work with legislators on bills that impact higher education, including this one. The Board and our universities strongly believe in free expression, and have spoken out frequently in their support of free expression and the First Amendment. We will continue to fight for the rights of all students, faculty and staff to be heard."

Josh Lehman, communications director for BOR

This Wednesday at 10 p.m.: KWWL will have a follow-up to this story, focusing on the students affected by these changes.

Hear from the Action UIowa Task Force; a group that has been fighting for better diversity, equity and inclusion trainings in the college but feels it has been forgotten about.

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Travis Breese

Reporter, Iowa City

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