Student Government endorsed two bills moving through the Iowa Legislature without many senators knowing the extent of the measures within the bills.
The bills — Senate Study Bill 1099 and House File 316 — were written to encourage free speech and religious liberties at regent universities, but many senators who voted to endorse the legislation did not fully understand a controversial section that would allow student organizations to bar members of the LGBTQIA+ community from leadership positions if it is the genuine belief or mission of the student group.
The Student Government bill passed with 14-2-9.
“I voted on Wednesday with an ‘abstain’ vote,” Sen. Courtney Beringer wrote in an email to the Daily. “An abstain vote is essentially a ‘no’ vote. I voted this way because I was not informed of the discriminatory nature of the Senate Study Bill [or] House File until a few minutes before we had a vote … If I had more context, I would have voted ‘no’ but that would not have changed the outcome. Looking back at the discussion, we should have had a better debate about the discriminatory nature of the bill.”
Sen. Jacob Schrader, author of the Student Government bill to endorse the state legislation, said the bill was given an adequate explanation leading up to the vote.
“In the Senate debate I specifically mention that it would allow a Christian group to deny leadership positions to lesbian and gay people,” Schrader said.
Other senators, like Sen. Sarah Moody, who abstained, said the controversial section of the bill was brought up “off-hand” and “showed the bill they were voting on was not presenting the two bills how they actually were.”
Schrader did not mention the more controversial section in the Student Government bill or in his introduction to the bill, rather the bill said the wording was “not perfect,” according to meeting minutes.
The bill failed to be called for a vote twice before Sen. Ihssan Ait-Boucherbil asked about his mention of the imperfect language and Schrader discussed the controversial section.
When this was brought up, some senators' opinion on the bill changed.
“As soon as I heard that my opinion on the bill changed,” said Vice Speaker Kelsey Culbertson. “I voted no because while I do believe in giving students as many freedoms as possible, I do not stand for discrimination of any kind … [It was] not made abundantly clear what the implications of the restrictions could be.”
As mentioned in the meeting by Speaker Cody Woodruff, the bill has also been opposed by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union because of the section that would allow student groups to bar certain members from leadership positions.
Schrader said he believes these changes would help further the goals of certain student organizations and said the measures within the bill would be a good change.
“My personal opinion is that that is a good thing,” Schrader said. “In the bill it says that it has to agree with the group's beliefs and standards and needs to further the student organizations mission. It is not denying membership to the club; it is simply denying leadership, and I believe clubs should be able to set requirements for their leaders that align with what the group is supposed to be about.”
Sen. Madison Mueller agreed with Schrader comparing it to other requirements groups can enforce on their leaders.
“If an organization feels that their values are not expressed with a certain individual in power, it is their right to not elect that person into said position,” Mueller said. “Clubs can have GPA, experience or community service requirements when choosing individuals for positions, and they should also be able to lay out other requirements, for example, sexual orientation, as long as this stipulation can be shown to further the missions and goals of the club."
In her support for the bill, Mueller also talked about the provisions for free speech, which the debate mainly focused around. The bill would eliminate free speech zones on campus and instead make all outdoor areas on campus a place for free speech, except in front of the health center.
Sen. Sandeep Stanley, who voted against the bill, said that measure wouldn’t actually change anything, as “the right to free speech is protected everywhere on campus, no matter what the phrase ‘free speech zone’ implies.”
Stanley said he supports free speech, but there isn’t a free speech problem on campus that the bill would fix.
Instead, the bill presented a problem for Stanley: The potentially discriminatory section was too broad.
“The bill is pretty vague, and to me it seemed like it would allow a white supremacist group to discriminate against people of other races, and, to put it bluntly, discrimination is something that me and other minorities face every day,” Stanley said.
The bill passed by Student Government did mention a particular free speech incident seen as problematic. When pro Steve King chalkings were written across campus in November, they were washed away by a member of Iowa State’s Facilities Planning and Management. Student groups did not get proper notice of why their chalkings were removed and an explanation was not provided until three weeks later.
“It was a real shame that the chalkings were erased,” Stanley said. “Despite my own thoughts on King, it was the students’ first amendment rights to put them there. I honestly just think the worker didn’t understand university policy and the impact this had on the first amendment discussion when those were cleaned up.”
Despite the freedom of speech portion being the focus of the bill, Sen. Ian Steenhoek requested tabling the bill for another week in order for people to clear up any confusion they may have had on the bill, but Schrader said senators had a week and a half to read into the legislation and their vote would be a time-sensitive issue. Steenhoek then withdrew his motion.
While students had time to read the legislation, Ait-Boucherbil said reading legal documents can be overwhelming, so debate could have been pressed further in order to clear up questions anyone had.
Ait-Boucherbil and multiple other senators said the fault for not understanding was on both sides as it could have been explained in further depth, but senators could have also done more research.
Looking back at her decision, Ait-Boucherbil said she would have voted differently.
“I initially voted yes but immediately regretted my decision because I felt like I did not have enough knowledge to vote on the bill,” Ait-Boucherbil said. “If I were to go back in time, I would have liked to table the bill for another week.”
Ait-Boucherbil is not the only senator who said they would have changed their vote, Sen. Austin Graber said he would have changed his vote from “abstain” to “no,” but he did not have enough time to make a complete decision.
Graber also suggested the Senate reconsider the motion at a later meeting.
“We should definitely reconsider this - 100 percent,” Graber said. “I know a lot of people abstained, and I think, given the opportunity, people would be able to make a more informed decision.”
Ait-Boucherbil said she plans on taking action to reconsider the motion at Wednesday’s meeting, whether that be through making a motion to reconsider or writing a resolution that rescinds the passed resolution and “edit it to better reflect what we agree on now that we have more background on the [bills].”
By endorsing the bills, Student Government gives a helping hand to the Republican legislature to pass the bill because it is "student-supported," said College Democrats President Taylor Blair.
"This is problematic, especially when the bill is more focused on protecting hate speech than it is about protecting free speech," Blair said.
Blair hopes the resolution can be rescinded, especially as it could send the wrong message to the state Legislature if the Student Government doesn't actually support it.