Karen Da Silva said she does not believe graduate students feel protected at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Da Silva, the president of the Graduate Student Assembly at UNL, said this is partly because of graduate student Courtney Lawton’s dismissal Nov. 17 after an incident that occurred in August regarding free speech.
On Aug. 25, students documented Lawton making obscene gestures toward a conservative student who stood at a Turning Point USA booth. Since then, conservative Nebraska state senators raised questions concerning the incident and asked if the English department practices a traditional English education.
Julia Schleck, associate English professor, is also concerned for graduate students at UNL.
She said graduate students and lecturers are vulnerable when their free speech is attacked, but believes free speech is a way of testing people’s way of thinking.
“Having faculty that challenge our thinking is what makes for a great institution of higher learning,” Schleck said, “but it’s not always comfortable.”
Because graduate student teachers are not protected by tenure, Schleck said they are at a higher risk of being criticized for what they teach.
“They deserve our support, and the fact that they now feel vulnerable and frightened to teach the best of what they know is a betrayal of our mission as an educational institution,” she said. “It impoverishes undergraduate students’ education at UNL.”
Da Silva said Lawton’s release of employment has grave ramifications for the protection of UNL graduate students.
“We can’t rely on administration to attend to our needs as students at UNL,” Da Silva said.
However, to protect graduate students, Da Silva said GSA must work with administration with any issue that needs resolving.
GSA is drafting a policy regarding free speech at UNL. Da Silva said GSA will work with Donde Plowman, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer, to share comments with the administration on the new policy.
Da Silva said she has a different perspective on free speech at UNL because she is an international student. She said when she arrived at Nebraska, she saw a politically divided campus, which she said somewhat limited the ability for protected free speech.
“We can’t have our voice out there without having someone externally saying something about it,” Da Silva said. “We should be able to express our thinking.”
Schleck said although she cannot speak for the English department as a whole, Lawton’s release from employment sets a terrible precedent for the university.
In regard to what Lawton’s situation means for freedom of speech at UNL, Schleck said it shuts down speech rather than opening discussion.
“If the only way one can win an argument is to silence opposing viewpoints, it doesn’t say much for that person’s confidence in their own side,” Schleck said. “If we are all afraid of being disciplined for what we might say because someone somewhere finds it offensive, how can any real honest discussion occur?”