- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2020

A campus free speech group has announced that it is dropping a lawsuit against Iowa State University over its temporary ban on writing political messages on sidewalks in chalk.

Speech First said it was dropping the lawsuit Friday just two weeks after the university had responded to it in U.S. District Court in Des Moines.

“Our student members at Iowa State University deserve major credit for their vigilance in defense of their speech rights,” said Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, which filed the lawsuit this year on behalf of three anonymous, conservative students. “[A]nd I have no doubt that if the University’s new policies are used to chill students’ speech in the future, our members will notify us immediately.”

In a written statement, ISU officials clarified the university’s rules on chalking and email use for students soliciting political support. Officials said an interim ban against chalking has been superseded by a permanent rule allowing sidewalk messaging.

Iowa State officials said they are pleased with the outcome of the legal case.

“After seeing Iowa State University’s response and evidence, Speech First chose not to continue with the lawsuit,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said in a statement, noting that the university paid no money to the advocacy group.

Speech First filed the lawsuit Jan. 2, saying the university’s interim ban in November was “severely limiting students’ ability to participate in chalking.”

The ban followed protests over offensive messages by a campus group called Students Against Racism, Speech First said.

Its attorneys also cited the university’s ban on school email accounts being used to solicit support for a candidate or ballot issue and a “campus climate reporting system” that chilled students’ speech as the Iowa caucuses approached.

“If the University had not banned it, Student A would chalk, among other messages, campaign slogans of the Iowa state representatives he supports, ‘Vote Trump,’ ‘Trump 2020,’ ‘Joni 2020,’ ‘Vote Joni,’ and ‘Vote Joni — Conservative, Pro Life,’” Speech First attorneys wrote in the federal complaint.
ISU attorneys criticized Speech First’s claims as being “boilerplate allegations” rife with misinformation.

“In the sole witness statement it submits in support of its motion — a three-page declaration not from any current or former ISU student but from the president of its Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization — Plaintiff fails to present anything close to competent evidence that ISU punishes or deters the ‘deeply controversial’ view its three unnamed members allegedly wish to express,” attorney Ishan K. Bhabha said in a Feb. 25 response to the complaint.

Mr. Bhabha, who works in a D.C. law firm, said that a deposition showed that one of the plaintiffs was unaware of a university-wide complaint system that his attorneys had cited as evidence of speech suppression before the young man read the legal brief. ISU attorneys also noted that the campus has served as a platform from conservative and liberal voices from President Trump to former Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Marianne Williamson.

The attorneys said in court records that the school had never enforced punishment for “biased speech” under a “campus climate reporting system” and suggested it had stood up for the First Amendment by pushing back on claims by Students Against Racism, which demanded ISU ban racist and anti-Semitic expressions.

They also clarified that students — not faculty or staff — could use school-issued emails to solicit political activity.

Speech First notes that many of the university’s changes and announcements were made after the lawsuit had been filed.

“All students can now chalk, regardless of their viewpoint or their membership in a student organization, in certain areas of the campus,” said Speech First in a statement.

More than 32,000 students attend Iowa State, and the university in Ames says it recognizes about 900 student groups that span the “ideological spectrum.”

In 2016, university administrators at the University of Kansas and Emory University in Atlanta, among other schools, were forced to respond to criticism of the time-honed tradition of campus “chalking” after liberal students reacted negatively to pro-Trump messages etched onto campus sidewalks.

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