A former lecturer and graduate student who was involved in a nationally recognized incident regarding a Turning Point USA booth and academic freedom in 2017 is suing the University of Nebraska for violations to the lecturer’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Courtney Lawton, a former non-tenure English lecturer and graduate student, filed the lawsuit on Aug. 26, 2021, in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska against the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Chancellor Ronnie Green and then-NU President Hank Bounds.
Lawton hired Vincent M. Powers as her attorney and has worked with him to make a formal complaint and request for a trial by jury.
“On August 25, 2017, [Lawton] exercised her right to free speech as guaranteed to her by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Nebraska by expressing her views while she was in the ‘free speech area’ located at or near the student union,” the lawsuit reads.
Lawton’s exercise of free speech, according to the lawsuit, was protesting with a sign saying, “Just say NO! To Neo-Fascism” and flipping off an individual at a Turning Point USA booth.
The university allegedly created but then denied the creation of free-speech zones for the purpose of allowing anyone on campus to exercise their right for free speech.
The lawsuit alleges that Bounds tweeted criticism of Lawton on Aug. 28, 2017, though the account has since been privatized.
“Hank Bounds who was then President of the University of Nebraska, posted a public message on Twitter criticizing the behavior of [Lawton] as ‘unprofessional’ and not in keeping with the standards of conduct,’” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit states a spokesperson for the Board of Regents released a public statement on Sept. 6, 2017, saying Lawton was not released because of security for others on campus but because of her actions as a professor.
“Chancellor Green sent an article to the local newspapers that plaintiff’s suspension would continue into the second semester and that she would be banned from future teaching at the University,” the lawsuit says.
Lawton was let go from her teaching position on Sept. 5, 2017. She did not teach for the fall or spring semester and was not given an adjudication process for deciding if she was fit to teach any further, the lawsuit states. Following Lawton’s dismissal, the American Association of University Professors added UNL to its censure list.
UNL has since tried to get off the censure list since 2018, which was halted by the inclusion and potential academic freedom threats by Regent and gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen’s resolution against critical race theory.
The AAUP suspended the removal process on July 21 but allowed the process to resume on Aug. 19, according to an email to university officials, following the resolution’s failure at the Aug. 13 Board of Regents meeting. University officials hope a vote to remove UNL from the censure list comes at the November meeting, according to UNL Faculty Senate Aug. 24 meeting minutes.
The lawsuit states that because Lawton was never given a further chance for teaching at the university, this resulted in stress for further employment options. She was, however, able to continue her graduate degree.
“The intentional publication by the defendant Green of the above comments concerning the plaintiff did damage the plaintiff’s ability to find future employment,” the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, the university claims they found the situation threatening for students with conservative political leanings and gave that as reasoning for dismissing Lawton.
Bounds also allegedly wrote Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts in November 2017 and gave assurance that Lawton would “not be teaching at the University of Nebraska,” according to the lawsuit.
“This decision to ban the plaintiff from teaching in 2017-2018 and/or permanently barring her from teaching at the UNL in any capacity was done without notice to the plaintiff and without any adjudication hearing,” the lawsuit reads.
The university told Lawton she would be a disruption because of all the negative press, according to the lawsuit.
Lawton’s attorney declined to comment at this time.
According to Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communication and marketing officer, Lawton was paid in full for the duration of her contract. Fiddelke could not comment further on pending litigation.
Lawton asks in the lawsuit for compensation to cover the “mental suffering, inconvenience, humiliation, emotional distress and all other general damages” as a result of the incident.