On one evening in late April of 2023, the outside of the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City had an outraged and raucous atmosphere. A large group of people stood in the middle of the intersection of Madison and Jefferson Streets which marked the southeast corner of the building. Their goal was to stop traffic from those exiting the IMU in an act of protest. Inside the building’s main ballroom, there was a lecture from conservative commentator, and outspoken transphobe and Matt Walsh that was just finishing.
During the lecture, Walsh espoused plenty of hate speech and misinformation towards transgender and queer people, which included intentionally deadnaming people, denying the existence of trans people, and calling for an end to the “dangerous transgender ideology”, amassing cheers while doing so. This was along with an uptick in expressions of anti-trans sentiments online and from people in the university in the weeks leading up to the event.
This is what led to everyone gathering in that intersection. The protesters wanted to exhibit their anger and show that they weren’t going to stand for an event like this. Whether the individuals were there to protect themselves or their friends and family, they wanted to be heard. From this position, they could show these sentiments to all those who attended the lecture and now had their path blocked, along with those in power at the university, and the Iowa City community in general. They wanted to make sure that their frustrations were heard, and that an event like this that platformed transphobia would never happen in their community again.
Students protesting outside the IMU after Matt Walsh’s lecture. Image via John Glab
Recently, on a mid-October evening, a nearly identical scene was reflected in the dusk air. This time, after blocking the entrances to the IMU, the group of protesters formed a blockade at the intersection, with individuals continuously circling the cross walk. The reasoning for this demonstration was nearly identical. The IMU hosted another speaker to espouse transphobic rhetoric and misinformation. Here, Chloe Cole, a teenaged detransitioner, was brought in to speak in what was not as large of an affair. She does not have as big of a name as Walsh’s, and her overall viewpoints aren’t as staunchly transphobic. Often it seems like she is being paraded around by other powerful conservative figureheads, where they are manipulating her to advance their anti-trans objectives.
Despite this, her speech and presence though were still harmful. Her main talking point that audience members rallied around was her opposition to providing gender affirming care for trans people under the age of 18. Many highlight the importance of having this form of medical care to be available to everyone, citing people’s personal experiences of feeling more comfortable in their bodies, and improving their mental health. This was still another attack on Iowa City’s transgender and queer community. Going through the same things again six months later, their anger here was even more palpable, because after they demanded that something like this would never happen again, it happened again.
With the content of these lectures, it is undeniable that they cross over into the realm of hate speech. This encourages equally hateful actions towards the group of people it is targeting. That is the whole point behind why someone would say hateful sentiments. They do it to convince others to adopt these ideals, and then carry them out in their daily lives. This of course spells danger for the transgender community that these lectures have targeted, where trans individuals experience more harassment, and potentially exposes them to violent acts.
So, why did another one of these lectures happen again? If it was just an open platform for people to spout hate speech, and so much of the student body was against it, why would another event like this happen again? To answer that we can look at the student organization hosting both events, the University of Iowa chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom. As a student organization, the YAF has the ability to apply for a space within the IMU to host an event. The process of inviting a guest speaker, even if they are there to discuss political topics and motives, is also permitted. Inviting a guest speaker adds more steps to the planning process with university guidelines requiring that an application for the speaker be sent through for review. The process for Cole’s lecture took about three months’ worth of planning.
Cole’s lecture. Image via KGAN
Since these events are so problematic, why wouldn’t the university deny them? The main claim that is used is the commitment to free speech principles. As a public institution, the University of Iowa is legally required to allow any student organization, with any political belief to have a platform to speak. Allowing the YAF to host an event that expresses the organization’s thoughts and opinions on certain topics does uphold free speech. There is also a clause in the guidelines that requires an open question and answer section during a hosted lecture if the speaker is deemed controversial. This requirement was strategically worked around. In Walsh’s Q&A section, anyone with a dissenting viewpoint was booed profusely so that they could never get out any of their points. During Cole’s Q&A section, the question that one of our reporters had wanted to ask was turned down by Cole’s team. This outrightly defies the free speech principles that give this event any credibility to exist.
Recently, about a month after the protest, Iowa City and campus police arrested six protesters who were involved in the protest of Cole’s lecture on serious misdemeanors for the obstruction of official acts. They were identified through video surveillance, and photos taken on the day of the protest. All six protesters were of trans identity. Even though there were many other cisgender protesters there doing the same thing, and the worst offense committed was encouraging others to block people from entering the IMU, these six were specifically arrested. This reads clearly as an attempt by city and campus officials to silence those among the transgender community. Making these arrests strives to strike fear in anyone else who would come out and protest another event like this. It tries to deny those of their right to protest, which goes against their free speech principles.
With these examples, there seems to be a double standard in how the university handles free speech. Here, protecting free speech principles doesn’t seem to be the main priority of the university for allowing these lectures to be hosted. As with most things, their main priority seems to be money. We at KRUI spoke with a lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous, that operates within the Iowa government, and University of Iowa. They gave us a rundown of how the YAF is able to host these events, and the money involved with them.
The YAF, and most right-wing student organizations on campus, all operate in a similar way. The YAF at the University of Iowa itself is just a chapter of the larger national Young Americans for Freedom organization, which acts as an interest group. The organization states its goal is to help promote conservativism. The national organization itself receives money through donations from various wealthy individuals, foundations, and corporations. The YAF does not disclose these donations, but many have been recorded to include several million dollars going to the organization at a time. The national organization then distributes the funds procured from donations to its various member chapters in universities across the county to carry out its goal of promoting conservative goals university campuses.
Police clashing with protesters during Cole’s Lecture. Image via John Glab
The YAF has realized that the best way to make an impact on campus is by being provocative. This is why they invite controversial speakers to come to campus, claiming that it’s in the name of free speech. They do this whether or not they actually fully agree with what those speakers have to say. The YAF fans these flames of outrage to burn as strong as possible. Specifically for the Cole lecture, the YAF brought on Iowa City and campus police from the beginning of organizing the event. They knew that people would protest the event, and if the police were there at the protest, it would raise tensions even further and escalate things.
Their goal was to create a sensationalist atmosphere, and further polarize the community. Part of it is them wanting to fabricate and push a narrative that conservatives are an oppressed group on university campuses. They take these images of people protesting their event and police clashing to post on social media to further this narrative. Through lobbyists like the one we talked to, the YAF goes to their constituents in Republican, right-wing state representatives. They make the argument to them that the “woke” University of Iowa is not sufficiently protecting the free speech of its right-wing students, hence discriminating against them in favoring more progressive, pro-LGBT views.
From here, the YAF can rely on these right-wing state representatives to pressure the University of Iowa to allow these events to happen, and to quell the backlash that occurs as a result of the transphobic lectures. The state representatives exert pressure through the state budget, which is voted on every year, and includes how much the University of Iowa receives in state appropriations. Since it is a public university, it is heavily dependent on state spending accrued from taxes to continue to operate year after year.
Graph via the University of Iowa
Looking at the university’s general education fund, which doesn’t include income sources from non-educational services the university carries out like athletic games and school stores, it brought in $218 million in the 2023-24 fiscal year from state appropriations. This makes up 27% of that budget, an extremely significant amount of that is decided by people in the government. What legislators want is for the university to favor groups like the YAF, so they can push these transphobic and homophobic narratives.
The University of Iowa is compelled to appease the opinions of these right-wing state legislators, or they would risk losing this major source of funding. This also explains why there were so many Republican state representatives at the Chloe Cole lecture. Specifically at that event, we at KRUI talked with, and got the names of representatives Dean Fisher, Mark Cisneros, and Brad Sherman, all of whom are Republican. Many of these representatives’ stances are staunchly against transgender people, which falls under Governor Reynolds’ administration’s ideals. Fisher, when asked by one of our staff members about his stance on gender affirming care, and if he would propose legislation related to the issue responded, “Your questions reflect the fact that you are very biased, and have little understanding of the issue. Apparently, you didn’t listen to Chloe’s speech.”
These are some of the representatives who have control over the University of Iowa’s funding. The university would not function without this money, and while state legislators would never outrightly take it all away, they could very easily cut back on it. Yet, the university uses up all of its monetary resources, so it can function to its greatest ability. A reduction in funding would mean a reduction in the quality of education that its students are receiving.
Image via Casper Bakker
State legislators are manipulating the University of Iowa with their own funding. It is in each community in the state’s best interest that this money goes to the university, so it can provide an education for its residents. However, this money comes with strings attached. Strings that can be pulled by those in power. This comes as over the past year, many laws have been put in place that attack the trans and LGBT communities.
These anti-trans bills include Senate Files 482 and 538, which ban trans youth from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender, and prohibit gender affirming care for those under the age of 18. There is also Senate File 496, which has banned many books from public school libraries that mention and discuss have LGBT related themes, and forbids teachers from bringing up these topics in teachings. These laws look to silence and undermine these people by erasing any recognition of LGBT people in the Iowa school systems.
Most recently, the Board of Regents set policies that encouraged rolling back diversity equity and inclusion policies for the universities it oversees. Regent David Barker cited concerns over the rapid growth of DEI programs as a reason to look into them, saying, “any bureaucracy that grows rapidly needs a close look from time to time.” This puts DEI programs, institutions that expand students’ worldview, and provide support for minority and marginalized people, in jeopardy. Many argue that this is a further attempt to continue to restrict diverse viewpoints within education systems in the state of Iowa.
The motivations of the Board of Regents are perhaps very similar to those of state legislators. The Board of Regents oversees the operation of the public universities within Iowa: The University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Iowa. They decide things like the cost of tuition, budgets and operational guidelines. The board consists of nine members from varying backgrounds, where one of them is required to be a recent student member. Thes members are all appointed by the governor, and then confirmed by the Iowa Senate. A stipulation of the board is that no more than five members can be of the same political party affiliation.
Of these members, only one, Nancy Dunkel, is affiliated as a Democrat. Four of them, Sherry Bates, Jim Lindenmayer, JC Risewick, and Abby Crow are registered as independents. The remaining four, Michael Richards, Greta Rouse, David Barker, and Robert Cramer are all affiliated as Republican. However, this doesn’t mean that views are evenly split. Though registered among the Board of Regents with no party affiliation, recently appointed JC Risewick has donated thousands of dollars to Kim Reynolds’ election campaigns. Along with this, regent Rouse worked as Reynolds’ communications director, and Barker was appointed by Reynolds to the Executive Council of the Empower Rural Iowa Initiative.
Protesters marching after Cole’s lecture. Image via Casper Bakker
This not only gives the Board of Regents a Republican majority, but also gives a position to several members who will make decisions according to Reynolds’ interests. Those interests as of recently have been to violate the lives of, and deny the right to exist for transgender people. What we have seen is an increase of these bigoted policies seeping more and more into the daily lives of people through educational institutions. The Iowa government has been flexing its power over these educational institutions, like the University of Iowa, so they follow suit with their transphobic incentives
So far, the University of Iowa hasn’t tried to fight back, but they have a very limited range to do so with state representatives controlling their funding. This limits the University of Iowa’s ability to provide a safe and tolerant environment for all its students, and the people in the greater community that it fosters. With this manipulation of governmental power, the University of Iowa will continue to degrade as an open and welcoming space for all. This bigotry that is corrupting university policies and attacking the transgender community within its campus is actively putting these people in danger.
This article was written with aid from John Glab, and field work from Amman Hassan.