University of Iowa professors at fault in student’s speech complaint

University of Iowa found faculty members violated the free speech rights of a master’s student accused of telling classmates that ‘homosexual conduct’ was against his beliefs religious and that they were “immoral” because they were less religious, according to The Gazette. At least one classmate reported that the student in question had created a “hostile learning environment”, and an associate dean and two professors raised concerns about the potential for harassment based on sexual orientation, The Gazette reported. One of the professors met the student in question and later wrote to him that it would be a “zero tolerance approach in the future”.

“Personal interactions with other students are certainly good on a sociable and friendly level, but not if others develop a sense of discomfort, especially one that can be seen as harassment,” Professor Patrick O’ wrote. Shaughnessy, Director of Graduate Studies in Occupational and Environmental Health. Jacob Johnson, the master’s student, quickly filed a lawsuit with the university asserting his right to express his belief that “homosexual conduct was one of the many sins committed by people”. Blocking conversations that cause discomfort “is inconsistent with the university’s obligation to respect the academic freedom of its students,” Johnson also said.

The university found in December that O’Shaughnessy violated its policies by rushing to limit Johnson’s speech without clear evidence that he had engaged in harassment, and that Johnson’s comments did not constitute harassment after all. The other professor and the associate dean were accused by the university of supporting the speech restrictions.

Jeneane Beck, spokeswoman for the university, said The Gazette that the faculty and the dean “acted in good faith as they attempted to balance the rights of all individuals on campus”. The institution is “fully committed to the First Amendment and encourages open dialogue, free inquiry, and healthy and vigorous debate,” she added. “The university also strives to be an inclusive campus for all.” The university is launching a new free speech course this month in response to a new state requirement.

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