University clarifies tabling policies ‘to protect students’ freedom of speech’

After receiving a demand letter, Iowa State University clarified a tabling policy that risks ‘censor[ing] student organizations who want to engage in speech as often as possible.’

‘[T]he First Amendment demands more accountability from universities to protect and uphold the exchange of ideas,’ the letter’s author said.

After receiving a demand letter from the Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), Iowa State University clarified tabling policies that risk “infring[ing] on students’ First Amendment rights.” 

Iowa State is one of 12 universities that received a demand letter from SLF for “‘unconstitutional’ policies that impede students’ freedom of speech.”

press release from SLF, a legal non-profit “dedicated to defending liberty,” shares a letter that Iowa State’s Office of General Counsel sent to SLF. In its letter, “Iowa State University has vowed to protect students’ freedom of speech,” according to SLF. 

“First, it explained that there are several ways for students to communicate with other students in addition to tabling, including distributing materials in the student union and other campus buildings and sending mass emails to the entire student body,” the press release says. 

“The University also clarified that students do not need to reserve a table weeks in advance to engage in tabling. Instead, students may use any table that has not already been reserved in the student union.”

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SLF’s demand letter told the Senior Vice President of Student Affairs that the tabling policies imposed “an unreasonable restriction on the time, place, and manner of speech” and “prior restraint on freedom of expression.”

Even if Iowa State did not intend to deter students from speaking, the First Amendment demands more accountability from universities to protect and uphold the exchange of ideas,” Cece O’Leary, an attorney with SLF, told Campus Reform

form on Iowa State’s website tells students that they are limited to eight tabling reservations a semester. This limitation, according to SLF’s demand letter, is an unreasonable restriction, in part because “the University fails to provide alternative channels of communication for student organizations.” 

SLF said that the restriction is an example of prior restraint, or an action that could “stop or even burden a citizen’s expression before the citizen is even able to speak.” 

The tabling policy “censors student organizations who want to engage in speech as often as possible,” the demand letter reads. 

According to the letter, the “heavy foot traffic” in the Memorial Union, “one of the most popular locations to engage in speech activities,” means that “standing in outdoor areas of campus, without a table, is not a comparable alternative.”

O’Leary told Campus Reform that tabling policies risk being “used to silence conservative students more than other students” because they often rely on tabling to get their message across.” 

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“Recognizing this risk, Iowa State clarified that students may use any table that has not been reserved, and that students can use other means like campus-wide emails to convey their message,” O’Leary said. 

“When a reservation policy gives school officials the authority to approve or deny space requests, there is a chance those officials will approve or deny those requests based on what the students want to say. Thankfully, Iowa State has admitted that it would be unconstitutional to favor some viewpoints over others.” 

Campus Reform contacted Iowa State for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.