After the issue of free speech on campus came to the forefront during the 2017-18 school year, students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln started movements and conversations regarding the First Amendment rights of themselves and faculty.
Throughout the school year, the university received criticism on how they handled an incident between a UNL lecturer and a student, and the policies it formed for future incidents from state senators, students and human rights organizations across the country.
On Aug. 25, 2017, the free speech debate began when UNL student Kaitlyn Mullen, tabling for the non-profit student organization Turning Point USA, was confronted by former English department lecturer Courtney Lawton.
Lawton was seen holding a sign that read, “Just say NO! to Neo-Fascism.” During the protest associate professor Amanda Gailey held a sign bearing the words, “Turning Point: Please add me to your watchlist. Prof. Amanda Gailey.” The sign was a reference to TPUSA’s “professor watchlist,” which seeks to flag professors “who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” according to the organization’s website.
Lawton was also seen making obscene gestures at Mullen while she was at the TPUSA stand.
On Sept. 7, UNL announced Lawton had been assigned to non-teaching duties within the English department. UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green released an op-ed on Nov. 17 that said Lawton would not be returning to the university in the future.
On Jan. 25, 2018, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents adopted a new policy regarding free speech.
The policy said students are welcomed and encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas. It also said students have the right to criticize, comment on and oppose other students’ views, but clarified that “they must do so at a time and place, and in a manner that does not prevent, impede, or obstruct the freedom of others to also exercise their rights to express themselves.”
The policy goes on to explain the First Amendment “provides no guarantee of civility,” but the university has an obligation to protect the security of its students.
It also explained the different types of public forums and whether they are an appropriate place for students to use free expression, such as setting up a booth or holding a protest.
The conclusion said that it is crucial for students and faculty to know and understand their First Amendment rights, and that lack of understanding can lead to miscommunication. The document also said it is necessary for UNL “to engage in a deliberate program of education for the University community” that embodies respect for the First Amendment and the university’s decision to support it.
The American Association of University Professors said the dismissal of Lawton violated her rights to a hearing, and subsequently, on June 16, the AAUP voted to add UNL to its censure list. According to the AAUP’s website, the organization came to the decision because of “departures [from] AAUP’s principles and standards of academic freedom.”
In a statement to The Daily Nebraskan, UNL spokeswoman Leslie Reed said within higher education institutions, students and the faculty should have the right to freely express themselves and their ideas, even if they are “unpopular and repugnant.”
Reed also said the university is currently implementing the Board of Regents’ policy and that “the events of the past year have served to reinforce the university’s commitment to freedom of expression.”
Akin to the policy, Reed said the Memorial Plaza north of the Nebraska Union and the Legacy Plaza south of the Nebraska East Union will be used as public forums for all students to use without reservation requirements. Other areas on campus will require scheduling before university organizations can use them for events.
In compliance with the new Regents’ policy on free expression, “the Executive Vice Chancellor’s Office has provided training and information to instructors, lecturers and graduate students about handling difficult conversations in classrooms.”
But according to Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), UNL still has a long way to go when it comes to freedom of speech. However, the new policy the university is enacting is a step in the right direction.
UNL’s new policy is based off of a set of guidelines, called the Chicago Statement of Principles, adopted by the University of Chicago in 2015. According to Cohn, those principles are considered the gold standard for free speech on college campuses.
Despite positive changes, Cohn said the university still must work to adequately uphold the First Amendment.
“But where the university is still lacking is that it has a number of policies, I believe including their harassment policy, that don’t conform with what the First Amendment requires,” he said. “So, it's kind of the right step in terms of saying, ‘This is what should matter,’ but when you measure the actual policies against that statement, they just don't live up to it.”
According to FIRE’s website, UNL is fairly similar to other schools in the Big Ten when it comes to free speech policies. The organization uses a school rating system resembling traffic lights. 10 out of the 14 schools in the Big Ten have a yellow-light rating, including UNL.
A yellow-light rating means the school’s policies still restrict students’ free speech and expression rights, and also means it may be easier for those rights to be abused and restricted further.
Though UNL stacks up similarly against other schools in the country, others, including Purdue University and the University of Maryland, have received green light ratings, indicating FIRE does not have reason to believe students’ rights are being threatened or violated.
But even if UNL can more readily uphold the First Amendment and further protect students’ rights, Cohn said a concern at FIRE is still whether or not Lawton will be reinstated as a lecturer. Cohn also said it is hard to be excited about the new policies being adopted when they are currently being abandoned.
“They can't claim to be in the right when they still have someone who is being punished for engaging in protected speech,” he said. “So they need to acknowledge that it probably was protected, and they need to stop making the argument that they are justified for punishing her.”
Cohn said FIRE has three major guidelines for universities across the country regarding free speech. The first is for schools to reform their written policies even when there is not a controversy, and for schools to avoid engaging in censorship, which he said UNL has a habit of doing.
Cohn did however say one thing the university has done correctly is follow FIRE’s third guideline of adopting the Chicago Statement.
“I think the third thing we ask schools to do, which the University of Nebraska has done, is adopt the Chicago Statement of Principles that can be used as a guiding star, and they have done that. So they have taken one of the three important steps,” Cohn said.
Although it's been a year since the controversy began, the First Amendment continues to be a hot-button issue on campus. The university has begun to make reforms, but, according to Cohn, “they still have a lot of work to be done.”
This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition of The DN.