A widely circulated tweet posted by the Iowa State College Republicans last weekend in reaction to Joe Biden’s victory was the latest of numerous examples of how the university-recognized student organization has embraced once-fringe views of the far right under an American president whose administration recruited one of the group’s members for a White House job in March.
And Iowa State University’s cautious response was the latest example of how the university has struggled in recent years to balance students’ free speech rights with its own interests and those of other students who have felt threatened by the political atmosphere and diversity problems on campus.
“Everyone, you must arm up, expect these people to attempt to destroy your life, the elites want revenge on us,” the tweet read. It was reportedly written by the group’s president, Ryan Hurley, who did not respond to a request for comment from the Informer.
The tweet was met with immediate backlash on social media, with much of the discussion focused on whether its language could be interpreted as an incitement to violence. It was reported to the ISU Police Department (a police spokesperson told the Iowa State Daily, which has covered the controversy in considerable depth, that the tweet was “not all too alarming”). The College Republicans’ Twitter account, meanwhile, was temporarily restricted.
The Iowa Federation of College Republicans, a statewide organization for young conservatives, voted to no longer recognize the student group until at least next spring. “After discussion of the matter, we moved to defederate ISU College Republicans on the basis of inflammatory tweets, inappropriate behavior, and a disregard for fellow citizens,” the federation said in a statement that added, “While we do promote civil discourse over these ideas, we as a federation unequivocally condemn any real or perceived threat of violence.”
ISU itself issued a statement in response to the tweet that was also criticized: “Iowa State University is aware of a social media post by one of its student organizations, encouraging others to ‘arm up,'” it read. “Any suggestion of armed activity by an Iowa State student organization is prohibited by university policy. Any conduct that violates university policy will be addressed in an appropriate manner.”
The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (which goes by the acronym FIRE) came to the defense of the College Republicans, arguing ISU had “pledged to punish ‘[a]ny suggestion of armed activity.'” The statement added that FIRE had written a letter to the university to explain that “a public university bound by the First Amendment … cannot punish students for political rhetoric that fails to rise to the exacting legal definition of a true threat or incitement.”
Without directly acknowledging FIRE’s criticism, ISU later clarified that no students would face disciplinary action over the College Republicans’ tweet. It wasn’t the first time the university declined to take action against the student organization after hearing concerns about messages posted by its controversial Twitter account.
In September, a student contacted the university’s Student Activities Center about recent tweets from the account that called for an end to “the barbaric practice of transgenderism” as well as ISU’s diversity classes and the women’s and gender studies program; grouped journalists and liberals with soy boys, a pejorative used by alt-right internet trolls to call men effeminate; suggested the university should “send … back” Chinese scholars; and joked about how “we called ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on illegals at Iowa State” in hopes of getting them deported (it’s not clear from the tweets if the College Republicans actually did this).
The student had been shown one of the tweets about reporting “illegals” by a Muslim studying at the university and questioned if its official recognition of the student organization might give the appearence that it condoned hate speech and was not properly committed to the welfare of certain students.
“In general, recognized student organizations are afforded protections under the First Amendment and may exercise their right to free speech via their social media platforms, even if you and I find that speech to be distasteful or offensive,” replied Kristine Heflin, the associate director for student activities at ISU’s Memorial Union, where the center’s office is located. Helfin suggested that the student could submit an incident report through the university’s recently established Campus Climate Reporting System or with its Office of Student Conduct. A report was submitted but it appears that the university may have dropped the matter.
ISU spokesperson Angie Hunt responded to a request for comment about the College Republicans’ recent tweets as well as those concerning the September incident report two minutes before the Informer‘s initial deadline by saying she was working to answer our questions but would need more time. Four hours and forty-seven minutes later, she followed up by providing a statement the university gave to reporters earlier in the week that sought to clarify its initial comment on the “you must arm up” tweet after FIRE’s pushback and said, “The university has no additional comment at this time.”
That statement read in full: “As a public institution, Iowa State University is committed to the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. The university’s statement was not directed at the speech contained in the Twitter post, but at conduct that would violate university policy. University policy and the Student Code of Conduct prohibits [sic] the possession or use of weapons, including firearms, on campus and in the course of university-related activities absent prior approval in circumstances not applicable in this matter.
“Any conduct in violation of these policies will be addressed under the student code of conduct. No students were subject to discipline by the university for the language in the tweet. This distinction was communicated with the student organization.”
Hunt did not address our inquiries about the organization’s tweets from the September report, nor Heflin’s response then. She also wouldn’t comment on a related question about ISU’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, which states that “recognized student and campus organizations are governed by this policy in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct.”
The cautious responses to concerns about the College Republicans have almost certainly been due at least in part to several high-profile First Amendment challenges in recent years.
In 2014, the leaders of ISU’s student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws filed a lawsuit after the group was prohibited from printing T-shirts that included images of the university’s mascot and trademarked logos. ISU had previously approved the shirts but reversed its decision after then-President Steven Leath was pressured by conservative lawmakers and state drug czar Steven Lukan. After a protracted legal battle in which the university’s arguments were repeatedly struck down in court, a settlement was reached in 2018 that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The case made the national news in part because of the prominence of the First Amendment lawyer representing the student group, Robert Corn-Revere, who’s from Washington DC and is an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute think tank. The lawsuit was also filed with the help of FIRE, the nonprofit that came to the defense of the College Republicans against potential disciplinary action over its “you must arm up” tweet.
During his tenure at ISU, which ended in March 2017, two months after Trump’s inauguration, Leath struggled to address criticisms of the university’s response to diversity problems. (Leath was recruited as president in the first place by a committee co-chaired by a Steve King donor and agribusiness magnate who criticized protests against racial injustice on a since-deleted Twitter account and sits on the board of the ISU Foundation.) On the day before the 2016 election, Leath addressed the student body in a video in which he commented on neo-Nazi posters recently strewn across campus by saying they “may be factually described as white heritage posters rather than white supremacy posters, because they do not legally violate the First Amendment.” (The expression of white supremacist viewpoints, however, is also constitutionally protected.) Shortly before Leath left ISU for Auburn University, student protesters staged a walkout after interrupting a speech he was giving on campus and declaring him a racist.
ISU launched an effort seeking to improve the campus climate in 2016 that led to the establishment of the Campus Climate Reporting System through which the September incident report about the College Republicans’ tweets was filed. In September 2019, Leath’s successor Wendy Wintersteen announced additional steps the university planned to take in order to tackle discrimination and harassment problems, including new diversity training options and the development of a “civility campaign.”
Four months after the announcement, a Washington DC-based nonprofit called Speech First sued ISU, arguing that its recent ban on sidewalk chalking (an effort to crack down on racist messages displayed on campus), emails involving political issues, and the existence of the Campus Climate Reporting System violated students’ constitutional rights. Speech First, which describes itself as an organization fighting “toxic censorship culture on college campuses,” dropped the lawsuit in March after ISU rescinded its temporary chalking ban.
In August, the university made the national news again due to a controversy over an English professor’s syllabus that warned students not to choose for papers or projects “any topic that takes at its base that one side doesn’t deserve the same basic human rights as you do (ie: no arguments against gay marriage, abortion, Black Lives Matter, etc).” A conservative youth organization headquartered in Virginia just outside of Washington DC called the Young America’s Foundation — whose past members include Stephen Miller, President Trump’s white nationalist immigration adviser — stirred up outrage over the issue. In response, ISU made the professor change the syllabus to comply with university policy and said it had since given faculty “guidance on First Amendment protections for student expression in the classroom.”
In May, the Iowa State College Republicans impeached their former president, Jacob Minock, after investigating 17 allegations against him including sexual harassment of women in the organization and racism including his casual use of the N-word. Hurley was cited throughout a document detailing the investigation and told the Iowa State Daily at the time, “We don’t tolerate these sorts of actions that are unbecoming of a member, and even if he doesn’t attend the meetings, we do not want those sorts of attitudes to be at College Republicans.”
Immediately preceding Hurley’s quote, the article referenced the organization’s constitution, which states that all members “shall act with honesty, integrity, and kindness toward others” and “never discriminate against others” based on “[r]ace, ethnicity, sex, pregnancy, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information or status as a US Veteran.”
Neither Hurley nor any other member of the group has faced disciplinary consequences for any of its tweets — which, as the Informer reported in March, have also openly promoted nativist views including a version of a century-old lie about foreigners introducing diseases to the United States. But the College Republicans’ Twitter account responded to the controversy over the “you must arm up” tweet by declaring itself “the most oppressed group on campus.” The group also claimed it was a victim of “cancel culture.”
Hurley is also a senator in ISU’s Student Government. In his member biography on the university’s website, he says his “favorite historical figure is Julius Caesar, as I find his campaigns through Gaul and his tragic demise fascinating.” He describes his distaste for brutalist architecture — an opinion reflected in a College Republicans tweet from February that indirectly praises Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban for redesigning bland buildings to promote nationalism. Hurley also lists The Death of the West among his favorite books. Written by Pat Buchanan, the book is subtitled How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. After the “you must arm up” tweet was posted, a bill was introduced in the Student Government proposing that Hurley be removed over it and his failure to attend Senate meetings.
The lack of consequences for the College Republicans continues to frustrate many members of the ISU community. On November 12, five days after the tweet was posted, an open letter signed by more than 700 students, faculty, and alums was sent to university administrators. The letter calls for the removal of the College Republicans’ status as a recognized student organization; an amendment to ISU’s code of conduct “specifically addressing how the institution responds to speech by students and student organizations that promote hate, directly or indirectly threaten the physical safety and free movement of members of the campus community, [or] potentially incite violence”; and for ISU to “demonstrate its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and its goal of educating students on these very important issues,” by strengthening its diversity course requirements.
“Importantly, the Iowa State University administration’s handling of this situation is a perfect example of how inequitable systems are sustained,” the letter reads in part. “Dismantling such institutions require[s] systemic change in the form of resources and policies aimed at eliminating the problematic status quo, and when offensive violations occur, the courage to take action that loudly proclaims, ‘Not on this campus!’ To do so would ensure the safety of students, staff, and faculty from underrepresented populations, as well as others in the larger campus community.
“Yet, perhaps out of fear of litigation, the Iowa State University administration has essentially told the people who feel unsafe on campus as a result of the College Republicans’ tweets that they do not matter. That message is affecting the current campus climate, and can have a significant impact on the retention and recruitment of students, staff, and faculty from underrepresented groups. Plainly, it sends a clear message that they will not be protected on campus should they decide to attend or accept employment at Iowa State University.”