Free Expression and Academic Freedom Syllabus Statement Frequently Asked Questions



In November 2020, Iowa State adopted a new required syllabus statement to be used verbatim in all university courses, beginning with the 2020-2021 Winter Session:

Iowa State University supports and upholds the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and the principle of academic freedom in order to foster a learning environment where open inquiry and the vigorous debate of a diversity of ideas are encouraged.  Students will not be penalized for the content or viewpoints of their speech as long as student expression in a class context is germane to the subject matter of the class and conveyed in an appropriate manner.  

The statement, created in consultation with Iowa State University’s Faculty Senate Executive Board, was communicated to faculty via a memo (PDF, 98KB) from Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert on November 11, 2020. Department chairs were also asked to share the statement with graduate student instructors and teaching assistants.  The statement, along with other best practices for syllabi, is available on the website of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)


Q1.  Is this syllabus statement a change in university policy?

No.  Iowa State University policy and the law have always protected free expression by students.  The syllabus statement highlights and more clearly communicates to our campus community what already and independently exists. 

Q2.  Why is this syllabus statement required when the others are recommended?

Iowa State University is committed to the principles of academic freedom and free expression as foundations of the educational process and scholarly inquiry, and to compliance with the First Amendment.  The syllabus statement is intended to support instructors and students, and to clearly communicate our commitment to the public. 

Q3.  When can a student’s grade be impacted because of the content of their assignments?  

Students are expected to demonstrate mastery of assigned course material, and instructors are expected to assign grades based upon demonstrated mastery and professional standards.  

University policy prohibits instructors from using teaching or grading methods to prevent students from full participation.  This includes preventing students from expressing their beliefs and viewpoints in assignments or class discussion that may differ from the viewpoints of their instructors provided the speech is germane to the subject matter.

However, if a student should express their views at inappropriate times, disrupt class, or attempt to shout down or silence those with opposing viewpoints, their class participation should be assessed accordingly.  The university’s classroom disruption policy may be applied by the instructor in such circumstances.

Q4. If a student disagrees with the material taught in class, are they still responsible for mastering it?

Yes.  Students are always expected to demonstrate mastery of the course material assigned by an instructor for a given course, and instructors should mark-down students who do not master the material according to professional standards.

As a simple example, if an instructor is teaching the science of evolution in a biology course, then students must demonstrate mastery of that material to pass the course.  The subject matter of such a course is not viewpoint neutral.  While students should not be prevented from saying that they personally believe in creationism or intelligent design as alternatives to evolution, they should not be punished for their beliefs as long as they can demonstrate mastery of the course’s subject matter and the concepts of evolution (even while not believing them).

Q5.  What recourse does a student have if they think that they have been penalized for the content of their speech?

The student should utilize the university’s established academic appeal process.  

Q6. What counts as speech in a classroom?  Does this apply only to in-class discussion?  

Speech, in this context, refers to any expression or activity that contributes to or impacts student assessment, including class discussions, projects, and assignments, whether verbal or written, or in-person or online.

Q7.  Some speech, even when germane to the subject matter of the course and conveyed in an appropriate manner, can create serious distress for others in the class.  What responsibilities do students have to their classmates and instructors?

Instructors and students alike should strive to strike the appropriate balance between academic freedom and freedom of expression, and the desire to maintain a welcoming learning environment. This includes the responsibility to discuss sensitive topics which are germane to the course in a civil and respectful manner, even when participants may disagree.   It is not appropriate, however, to restrict or penalize student expression due to fears of how such expression may impact other class members as long as the student expression is germane to the subject matter of the class and expressed in an appropriate manner.

The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has resources to help navigate these challenges, including Inclusive Classroom Resources and Managing Disruptive Conduct in Learning Spaces.


January 21, 2021