Photo Credit: Cedar Falls Tourism Bureau

Last week, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Student Senate voted 11 to 9 to reject UNI Students for Life’s application to become an official student organization. 

Esha Jayswhal, the student senator who introduced their application for a vote, reminded the Senate that met virtually, “Keep in mind that we approve student organizations based on if they meet our requirements of a constitution. So they have met all the requirements, such as having a purpose in their constitution, as well as duties for all their executive positions. So an organization cannot be denied because you oppose or support their mission.”

And yet they did. 

One student senator, Mohammed Rawwas, raised an objection saying the group “objectively harms students beyond any sort of subjective association.” 

Why? Because he said Kristan Hawkins, the president of the chapter’s parent organization, Students for Life of America, is on record “opposing exceptions for rape and incest when criminalizing abortion.”

Mainstream pro-life groups oppose exceptions for rape and incest, a prevalent view in the pro-life community. How this objectively harms students is anybody’s guess. 

This student senator went on to falsely accuse the group of criminalizing mothers. 

Rawwas then objected to the national organization’s use of the term “army.” 

“Just off of the website, for example, it says, When Roe and Doe are reversed Students for Life will be the only entity with a trained and experienced army of ground troops ready to engage. I don’t know if that language really reflects the sort of organizations that we want to have on campus, an army of ground troops that are going to be fighting, what women who have been raped and impregnated and want to seek abortions. That doesn’t really seem like the type of organization that NISG (Northern Iowa Student Government) or the university would want to be supporting,” he objected. 

But don’t worry, Rawwas said his opinion was not one of political bias.

“I think we do have a responsibility, like for the safety of our students, and I think I’m purely outside of any realm of like political bias, I just think this is like, incredibly heinous. And I don’t know, I don’t know why would be in favor of registering this organization,” he stated.

Not every student senator felt the same way.

Abigail Kraft encouraged the student senate should set the topic of abortion aside, the university recognizes diverse views, and the Student Senate had approved organizations before who had national organizations that members disagreed with.

“I feel like we’re doing more harm than good by suppressing our students rather than giving them the power to speak about what they care about,” she said.

Jayswhal echoed that view. 

Another state senator, Randy Everding, said his constituents would object to their tuition dollars going to an organization like Students for Life.

I’m sure some students object to their tuition dollars going to groups like ProudCitizens Climate LobbyNorthern Iowa FeministsNorthern Iowa Democrats, and others. 

This is a point that another student senator, Matt Barton, made, “I think all of us have constituents putting funds towards something we disagree with.” 

Kraft seconded what Barton said in a follow-up comment.

Another student senator, Caleb Stekl, accused Students for Life of using racist advertising for pointing out how many black babies Planned Parenthood aborts, a statistic that is a matter of fact. He literally compared them to the Ku Klux Klan.

And yet another student senator, Max Tensen, called Students for Life a hate group. 

You can listen to the whole debate below:

Sophia Schuster, a pro-life UNI student who applied to start the group, said she was not surprised by the reaction but was surprised by the decision.

“I wasn’t really surprised by how NISG reacted because I know abortion is a controversial topic, but I was shocked by how they allowed their emotions and personal opinions to influence their decision. Students for Life met all of requirements for being approved set forth by UNI, but they completely ignored that fact. I think they have overstepped their role and tried to use their power to silence us just because they disagree. This is a direct attack on free speech and of due process of law and an example of abandoning standards that they claim to hold.”

Not only was the vote an attack on free speech, but it also violated the Iowa Board of Regents free expression policy adopted in response to a state law that passed in 2019

The University of Northern Iowa took prompt action, and last Friday said they would not uphold the student senate’s decision. 

“The University of Northern Iowa is committed to protecting our students’ First Amendment rights and is concerned that recent actions by the student government violated UNI policy by rendering a decision that was not content-neutral. We have provided the petitioning student organization with resources and encouraged them to appeal the decision, which they did this afternoon,” the statement reads.

“The university will support their appeal, which is scheduled to be heard Monday by the student government’s appeals court. If the court declines to grant their petition, the student group can appeal that ruling to the university president,” the statement continues. “UNI will not uphold a decision that violates the First Amendment and university policy.”

UNI said they hoped the incident would further inform NISG members.

The Iowa Board of Regents spokesperson Josh Lehman told Caffeinated Thoughts that the Board of Regents stands in support of UNI’s statement.

“Expression policy reflects the law that was enacted last year by the legislature and we will follow it,” he said.

“Our public universities are places where all viewpoints should be heard and respected. This has been a long-standing core principle of institutions of higher learning, and the Board of Regents fully supports the free expression of ideas on our campuses. The right to express differing views on any issue is paramount, and the Board and our universities will continue to support this right,” Lehman added.

State Senator Amy Sinclair, chair of the Iowa Senate Education Committee, applauded UNI’s actions. 

“What happened at UNI with the Students for Life organization is a sad indication of where our society is today. There is no longer a willingness by many people, particularly on the left, to have meaningful dialogue with those whose opinions differ from their own. The actions of the UNI Student Senate are not only in clear violation of Iowa’s campus free speech laws and the policies of the University but display a blatant disregard for the First Amendment to the Constitution of our nation. I was pleased that University administration came out in opposition to the illegal and suppressive actions of this freedom-violating group of students,” she said.

This episode at UNI demonstrates, yet again, why it was necessary for the Iowa Legislature to pass and for Governor Kim Reynolds to sign a law compelling the creation of free expression policy at Iowa’s Regent universities and community colleges. A law that was opposed by most Iowa House and Senate Democrats.

It is encouraging to see that policy in action. Had that law not passed, I’m not sure how this would have turned out.

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