As part of our Curious Cornhuskers initiative, an anonymous reader asked The Daily Nebraskan to survey students about their experiences and thoughts about free speech on campus.
From the very beginning of the school year, there have been five major organized protests as well as smaller events against sexual assault and the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, also known as FIJI; a self-suspension of Sigma Chi due to another allegation of sexual assault; protests for peace and to welcome Afghan refugees and a lawsuit against the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from a former graduate student and lecturer related to alleged violations of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. And off campus, there have been political events and topics that make students talk.
With continuing pressure and polarized political parties in the United States, some students worry their voices are not being heard.
Sreemedha Chintamadaka, a sophomore architectural studies major, said she has been able to go to protests and see students gather for these events, but she never sees the university actually get involved.
"I believe at our age people maybe are pushing things on social media, but then, obviously, when it comes to the higher-ups, they're old; they don't listen to us,” Chintamadaka said. “I don't know, maybe they think we're immature or something like that but we voice our thoughts, but then no one really listens."
There is a feeling of being able to speak, but there is the question of being heard, Chintamadaka said. She said there needs to be action when it comes to what students protest to know that students are being heard by faculty and staff.
UNL seems to be a pretty open place to voice an opinion, Matthew Craffey, a biological sciences Ph.D. student and member of the Biology Graduate Student Association, said. He said the association’s point of view is that students feel very comfortable bringing up what is happening on campus.
“We felt so far that it's a pretty comfortable environment to voice what we're feeling at the time with respect to the department,” Craffey said. “And then in my own lab, I feel pretty comfortable with discussing anything that could be bothering us, any important issues and being able to have discussions where those are necessary.”
Craffey said he was unaware of the specific situation that led to the lawsuit, but he said that with situations like that, he has seen universities nationwide struggle with giving professors a place to voice opinions.
UNL had issues surrounding giving students, faculty and staff a specific area to voice their opinions, Craffey said. The rumor that floats around regards a zone dedicated to anyone wanting to protest or bring up a specific topic.
In 2018, UNL adopted a policy in conjunction with the University of Nebraska Board of Regents related to free expression and created “Designated Public Forums,” “Limited Public Forums” and “Non-Public Forums,” which was a few months after the incident between the graduate student and a Turning Point USA booth that has now led to the lawsuit.
According to the policy, designated public forums are defined as places “open for expressive applications to all or part of the campus community, or the community at large” while limited public forums include places like concert halls, events like student panels or other means of expression and are places that “can be designated for use by a particular group and limited to particular topics or types of speech.”
The Nebraska Union Memorial Plaza and Legacy Plaza south of the Nebraska East Union are designated public forums at UNL. A map of these areas is available here.
Matt Cohen, an English professor and president of the UNL American Association of University Professors chapter, said free speech has legal limits and students, faculty and staff do not quite understand what the limits are and where to test these limits.
“The campus has designated spaces for the full exercise of free speech,” Cohen said. “To be honest, most of the voices I see in those spaces are conservative ones. I’ve taught at five different universities and have never seen a campus more saturated by conservative presence.”
Leslie Reed, UNL’s public affairs director, confirmed the existence of these spaces and said in an email they are not called “free speech zones.”
College is a time to test the limits of the First Amendment and the ethics behind being able to say what someone might think needs to be said, John Bender, an associate dean in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications and a professor of journalism, said.
"Take something that's been in the news: critical race theory,” Bender said. “Is it appropriate for this faculty member to say here, ‘This is critical race theory, you need to know what it is?’ That's perfectly appropriate. You may not agree with it. You may dislike it, you may reject it, but you should learn what that is."
This summer, NU Regent and gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen introduced a resolution to ban the imposition of critical race theory, which failed when put up to a vote by the entire NU Board of Regents. Administrators, faculty, students and student-athletes opposed the resolution while state officials supported it in the lead up to the vote.
The whole university should be a place for free speech, and there are times when a topic does not correlate to what is talked about, Bender said. He said students don’t have to agree with everything their professors say.
"I can't persuade students to adopt my points of view,” Bender said. “Nobody else can persuade a student to adopt a point of view if they don't want to. We can't change your minds. Some people call this brainwashing, but it's just the process of challenging people."
Cohen said college will make people uncomfortable. There are people from all backgrounds coming together. The purpose of free speech is to make people question what they believe, he said. There will be times when people on campus will ask if something is ethical and they can challenge others.
"That's what university is for,” Bender said. “If you leave here thinking the same things as when you came, you've wasted your money. And I think that's true for liberal students, too. It's a time to explore a variety of ideas. I think that does happen. Sometimes people aren't happy about having to do that, but I think that is what happens on campus. So I think we're doing our job."