'Gag Order' on Mask and Vax Speech

University of Iowa said professors could only talk to students about face masks and vaccinations in course-related discussions about health. Faculty advocates said no way.

 
August 13, 2021
 
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Following criticism, the University of Iowa says it's rethinking limitations on what faculty members may say in their classrooms about face masks and vaccinations.

The initial Fall 2021 classroom speech guidance, posted earlier this week by the provost's office, said instructors "may only make statements regarding mask usage or vaccinations in the context of course material discussions of health-related issues."

Beyond that context, and only if asked, instructors may share their "personal choice regarding the decision to wear a mask or be vaccinated," the guidelines said. That's "without making a statement regarding the value of the choice or any value judgments about decisions not to be vaccinated."

Teresa Mangum, professor of English and women's, gender and sexuality studies at Iowa, said of the guidance that she and others who "care deeply about the health of our community on one hand, and about a commitment to free inquiry and to acting on research on the other, are living in a state of cognitive dissonance."

Scientists and health care experts "have clear evidence that vaccines and masking can protect everyone from a virus that has killed millions of people," Mangum said. "As educators and as citizens, most faculty I know share my belief that it is our ethical and intellectual obligation to urge our fellow faculty, staff and students to take those steps to protect themselves, the campus and local community, and their friends and loved ones."

She added, "I do not want to be the cause of my 90-year-old father's death. I need to say that to my students."

Iowa's FAQ-style memo noted that "there is a power differential between you and your students, and they may perceive you asking them to wear a mask or if they have been vaccinated as a requirement that they do so."

The provost also reminded instructors that they are not allowed to ask students to wear face masks or to ask students or colleagues if they've been vaccinated.

screenshot of mask speech guidance

Source: University of Iowa

"Vaccination status is a personal matter and should be treated as such," the guidance said. "Asking someone about their vaccination status may cause them to feel pressured to share personal or private information. By avoiding questions regarding vaccination status, we are helping to ensure that everyone feels respected."

A note at the bottom of the memo said that university employees and students are responsible for following university guidance on COVID-19 protocols and that "violations may result in disciplinary action."

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Professors may post certain signs encouraging mask-wearing, the guidance allowed.

Prior to this guidance, hundreds of professors and students at Iowa had already signed on to a petition seeking stricter public health protocols for fall. The faculty-led petition, which centered on the university's lack of vaccine mandate for students or employees, ends with this plea: "[A]s you probably know morale is at an all-time low. We are at risk of losing faculty, students, and staff who seek opportunities at academic institutions that have mandated vaccines for COVID and can institute mask-wearing."

While public universities are subjected to "intense political pressures," the petition says, "the morality of our academic institutions is at stake. This pandemic has taken a huge toll on productivity, mental health, teaching and learning."

Beyond vaccines, Iowa remains the only Big Ten Conference institution without a mask mandate. And the university appeared this week to double down on its no-mandate mandate by limiting what professors could say about masks and vaccines in their own classrooms.

University of Iowa professors voiced their objections to those guidelines online and internally, arguing that they threatened morale further and infringed on their academic freedom and free speech rights.

Free speech advocates from outside Iowa criticized the guidelines, as well.

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said restricting classroom discussion about mask usage and vaccinations to course-related discussions about health "is too broad to be consonant with academic freedom." It would be "entirely appropriate" to talk about masks or vaccinations in a philosophy course dealing with issues of collective action, for instance, he said, even if the course wasn't about health-related issues.

There is simply "no constitutional basis for a public university to restrict professors from expressing quote-unquote value judgments in explaining why they made the choices they did about masks or vaccination, whether for or against," Shibley said. "Nor may Iowa prevent them from opining as private citizens or academics on matters of public policy. Value judgments motivate a great deal of human decision-making, and the ability to thoroughly discuss and debate the merits of such decisions is a hallmark of liberal education and free speech more generally."

Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, said on Twitter that the University of Iowa's provost "has decreed that professors shall not share their personal value judgments about vaccines and masks in the classroom. That's an academic freedom problem & potentially a First Amendment problem."

Whittington, who chairs the Academic Freedom Alliance, said he was speaking only for himself, for now, but urged the university to reconsider the "gag order." He also noted a discrepancy between it and the Iowa regents' own free speech policy.

The university officially removed the guidance from its website Thursday, posting a "revisions in progress" notice.

Loren Glass, professor of English and president of the campus's American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter, said faculty members were concerned about their right to free expression. But he declined to say more, as he preferred to comment on the new guidance, once issued. Teresa Marshall, professor of dentistry and Faculty Senate president, declined an immediate interview request for the same reason.

Hayley Bruce, university spokesperson, said that the administration is "currently working with our faculty colleagues on campus and will have an updated version soon."

Regarding faculty demands for a mask mandate, Bruce said that guidelines from the state's governing Board of Regents "prohibit the public universities from requiring masks on campus."

A new Iowa law bans K-12 schools from mandating masks, but that does not apply to universities. The Board of Regents announced in May that "faculty, staff, students and visitors to campus will not be required to wear a mask or other face covering," and that "unvaccinated individuals are strongly encouraged to continue to wear a mask or other appropriate face-covering while on campus."

Asked if the regents' policy explicitly prohibits mask mandates, Josh Lehman, board spokesperson, said that Iowa universities are following the board's guidance.

Regarding outstanding faculty concerns about the fall, Barb Wilson, the University of Iowa's new president, said in a statement, "I hear and understand the concerns of some of our campus community." Moving forward, she said, "I will continue to strongly advocate for vaccinations and urge individuals to wear masks indoors on campus."

Lois Cox, clinical professor of law emerita and chair of the campus AAUP chapter's committee on academic freedom and tenure, said Wilson met promptly with chapter leaders about their concerns this week and seemed "focused on letting faculty know what they can do under current law to keep themselves and their colleagues, families and students safe during the pandemic." Wilson also said that university guidance is "changing rapidly," Cox said.

Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an associate professor of art and art history and author of the faculty petition, said that "Iowa has always sought to preserve academic freedom," though it "seems to be muddying the waters right now."

"Silencing faculty from sharing facts and science that our federal government has supported is contrary to our mission," she continued.

Yet Williams said she didn't want the speech guidance to divert attention from the "real issue."

"We need to mandate masks and vaccines on campuses," she said. "COVID can be deadly. Delta is spreading and highly contagious. People will begin flooding our campus in less than two days. Pearl clutching, doubling down and sticking our heads in the sand won't save anyone."

 

 

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