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Univ. of Iowa reverses policy on faculty discussing masks and vaccines

Free speech advocates say the change isn’t enough
Published: Aug. 18, 2021 at 6:47 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - The University of Iowa said it made a mistake when it initially told professors they couldn’t talk about masks or vaccines in the classroom.

Last week, the University told instructors they were not allowed to discuss masks or vaccinations unless it related to course material. After drawing sharp criticism from community members and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, they took down the page and replaced it late Tuesday.

The University of Iowa’s executive vice president said that the University never intended to limit anyone’s free speech.

His full statement is below:

It was never our intent to limit anyone’s free speech and given the importance we place on academic freedom and free speech I’m sorry we didn’t realize that’s how it would be perceived. When we heard those concerns from some of our faculty, we reviewed the document from their perspective and worked together to make changes.

Our goal from the start was to remind faculty that they will have students in their classroom who come with different perspectives than their own and that it is important to show respect even when we disagree. There is a power differential between students and faculty, and we wanted them to be mindful of how they approached these conversations, which can be extremely personal and emotional.

In this highly politicized climate how you approach these topics matters so we were trying to provide guidance that would safeguard both students and faculty in those exchanges. Again, I’m glad we received the feedback we did. It provided us an important opportunity to clarify and improve the guidance.

Kevin Kregel, University of Iowa Executive VP and Provost

Adam Steinbaugh, the Director of Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, said the new guidance, while improved, is still lacking. He pointed to a statement in the new guidance that states “instructors should be especially mindful to avoid discussing a student’s vaccination status.”

“If your employer says that you should avoid discussing something in particular, that is an instruction,” Steinbaugh said. “The university has overstepped the bounds and is now limiting how faculty members can discuss these issues and that is going to inhibit the ability of faculty members to discuss public policy and public health more broadly, and that’s unconstitutional.”

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