Some state senators and University of Nebraska officials are working on separate proposals with a similar goal: free speech on campus.
Proving that the pendulum of politics and opinion is ever-swaying, the legislative push for a free speech manifesto comes largely from conservatives. They believe their views are not welcomed on campuses such as those of the University of Nebraska system.
Some 50 years ago it was liberals who felt their protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War were threatened by college administrators.
Today, conservatives say, it is quite the opposite.
State senators such as Steve Halloran of Hastings and Steve Erdman of Bayard want to create legislation that would require the state’s public universities and colleges to uphold free-speech rights and show neutrality in protecting freedom of expression.
The NU system, meanwhile, which has campuses in Lincoln, Omaha, Kearney and Curtis, is circulating to faculty senates and others a draft of its own “commitment to free expression.”
As of last month, the draft said NU should be a place where “all members of its community are welcomed and are encouraged to participate in the free expression of ideas.”
Halloran, who expects to introduce legislation in the 2018 session, is using a Goldwater Institute model to help him draft his bill.
“I expect to have a pretty healthy number of co-sponsors,” Halloran said. “I think there needs to be some clarity when it comes to higher education institutions.”
Among other things, he said, the bill would require the NU Board of Regents to create a committee on free expression. The committee would publicly report each year on incidents and barriers to free speech, how they have been handled, and challenges and successes in promoting political discourse and administrative neutrality.
Jim Manley of the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute said the Wisconsin regents and North Carolina have passed Goldwater-based bills.
Seven other states, in addition to Nebraska, are considering them.
Manley said some other states have passed bills that contain some free speech provisions.
Halloran said legislation might prevent incidents like the one that occurred Aug. 25 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In that episode, which has been widely discussed in Nebraska and elsewhere, a sophomore sat at an outdoor table recruiting students for the conservative Turning Point USA.
Then a graduate student-lecturer walked up and called her, among other things, a “neo-fascist” who wants to destroy public schools.
Several other graduate students or faculty members gathered, one yelling that the student wanted to put popular professors on Turning Point’s liberal “watch list.”
The conservative student, Kaitlyn Mullen of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, wept.
The episode became a cause célèbre, especially for conservatives who were already inclined to view universities as liberal nests.
Halloran and Erdman say they have heard from other students and former students who attended colleges across the state who felt they couldn’t freely express their views.
It’s a national issue in higher education, a systemic problem, Erdman said. “It’s not isolated,” he said. “You know that.”
David Moshman, an emeritus professor at UNL and a leader of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska, said one incident isn’t evidence of a crisis.
As for the senators’ assertions that they have heard of other situations as well, Moshman said if one searched for incidents involving racism and sexism, they would find those, too.
The NU system is huge, he said, with 52,000 students and thousands of staffers and faculty members. There are bound to be problems of bias, he said.
Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English at UNL and the state conference president of the American Association of University Professors, said she believed the state legislation was unnecessary.
A free speech bill “implies Halloran considers the First Amendment to be inadequate,” Schleck said. “Personally, I’m proud of our Constitution and the way in which the First Amendment has protected free speech in America.”
William Wozniak, a past head of the University of Nebraska at Kearney Faculty Senate, called the legislation “a solution looking for a problem.”
But administrators of the NU system are working on their own free speech document, which they hope to take to the Board of Regents in early 2018.
In addition to calling for an environment at NU in which all are encouraged to participate in free expression, the draft further stated that people “may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express opposing views to which they object or even find abhorrent.”
Schleck said professors expect the NU statement to recognize that “even uncivil speech is protected under the First Amendment.”
She said she also expects NU’s proposal to “make clear that those it employs will be judged on the quality of their work in the position for which they were hired and not discriminated against on the basis of their political affiliations or constitutionally protected activities they might undertake as citizens.”
The graduate student who called the sophomore a neo-fascist will be let go at the end of the school year. Many NU faculty members contend that she wasn’t given due process to fully defend herself. About 315 have signed a letter making that argument, among other complaints.
Sam Walker, an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said this nation has the broadest free-speech protections in the world.
And the notion that conservatives can’t speak up in the NU system isn’t valid, he said.
“There isn’t massive suppression of conservative speech on campus,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Walker said the only example in recent years of a speaker being disinvited in the NU system was Bill Ayers, who helped lead the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground protested the Vietnam War by bombing public buildings.
Ayers, who went on to become an education professor in Illinois and an ally of President Barack Obama, was going to speak at UNL in 2008. Administrators canceled the engagement after a public outcry.
A university shouldn’t be a “warm, fuzzy place” that protects people from offensive speech, Walker said.
“The answer to bad speech is more speech,” he said. “That’s what universities are for.”