Protecting teachers who protect student rights

A bill now awaiting debate and a vote in the Iowa Senate is quite short. It adds a mere 10 lines to the Iowa Code.

But those 10 lines are an important legal statement Iowa lawmakers should adopt before they finish their work for 2020.

Senate File 2331 says employees of Iowa’s public schools shall not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned or in any other way retaliated against for protecting a student’s freedom of expression or for refusing to infringe on a student’s First Amendment rights.

Currently, students in Iowa public schools have a right to exercise freedom of speech in the papers they are assigned to write for classes or in articles they write for their school’s student newspaper.

That freedom is not without limits, however.

Schools can adopt rules relating to statements students make orally. Students cannot write papers or articles that are obscene, libelous or slanderous. They cannot encourage people to commit unlawful acts, violate lawful school regulations or cause a substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.

But as the law now stands – and this is where Senate File 2331 is important – there is no comparable protection for the teachers or school officials who oversee the students’ class work or their school activities and refuse of infringe on the students’ rights to free expression.

One footnote: The existing law and the amendment now in the Senate do not apply to students in private schools.

Iowa has occupied a prominent role nationally in student rights since December 1965, when three teenagers in the Des Moines schools were suspended for wearing black armbands to school to show their support for a truce in the Vietnam War.

Their silent protest led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision three years later in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District. The justices decided 7-2 that students do not surrender their First Amendment rights when they enter a public school.

The Tinker case was wrapped in controversy from the very beginning, and controversy has not gone away when it comes to student rights in schools.

There were people who supported the Tinkers’ protest against the war, including two wealthy Des Moines philanthropists, Louise Noun and Joseph Rosenfield, who later paid for their attorney. But there were plenty of other people who thought the students’ actions were out of place in the schools. The Tinkers’ parents even received hate mail and death threats.

Twenty years later, in 1989, the Iowa Legislature enacted a law that makes it clear public-school students in this state have the right to exercise freedom of speech, including the right of expression in student yearbooks and student newspapers. Thirteen states have similar laws.

Times continue to change, however.

A couple of generations ago, the Vietnam War, the military draft and the anti-establishment “hippies” were at the heart of the division within the United States. Today, our president and his approach to governing and the news media that cover him serve as lightning rods for that sharp divide.

The 1989 Iowa law that articulated students’ free expression rights is the one to which the amendment outlining teacher job protections is awaiting Senate debate.

The amendment was approved by the Senate Education Committee 14-0 last month. The vote is noteworthy, because it is a challenge to find much that Republicans and Democrats agree on in the Legislature this year.

Senate File 2331 deserves bipartisan support because lawmakers know this is about more than simply protecting student journalists who might write on topics that cause anxiety for parents or school administrators.

This amendment protects teachers who supervise those student journalists. A faculty adviser could not be retaliated against for acting to protect a student journalist for conduct that is authorized under the student free expression law.

Translation: The faculty newspaper adviser can’t be punished if a student writes about transgender bathrooms or about students who are bullied by classmates for supporting President Donald Trump.

This amendment also blocks punishment of teachers who protect students who choose to write on potentially controversial topics for class assignments in government and politics, sociology or similar classes.

Translated, teachers cannot be retaliated against in a conservative district because some students write in opposition to the president’s blunt comments on Twitter, just as teachers in a more liberal community can’t be retaliated against if a student writes in support of the president’s controversial immigration policies.

Granted, student views have been a source of consternation for adults through the years. It makes no sense to encourage young people to freely express their opinions and then turn around and try to punish teachers and school officials for not reining in those opinions.

That’s why Senate File 2331 should be approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

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Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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