Two national groups contend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln may have violated a lecturer’s rights by punishing her for angry political speech toward a student.
The situation reflects the bind UNL and NU administrators are in over an Aug. 25 incident in which a graduate student-lecturer, Courtney Lawton, belittled a sophomore who was recruiting for a conservative group.
Now the two academic freedom organizations say the lecturer didn’t receive due process, and at least one of those groups says she shouldn’t have been fired, effective at the end of this school year. The other organization plans to investigate further with the possibility of putting UNL on its censure list.
Meanwhile, at least three state senators believe administrators should have acted more urgently. They contend the incident confirms a long-suspected liberal bias at UNL.
The conservative senators hoped one of the national organizations, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, would look into the situation because FIRE has a reputation for impartiality.
But FIRE’s finding was different from that anticipated by the conservative senators.
FIRE wrote, in part:
“Punishing a faculty member for public political expression on the basis that it lacks civility is unconstitutional. The First Amendment does not permit the government, including public universities, to require its constituents to respond only politely to views they find offensive.”
State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said he was disappointed that FIRE didn’t talk to him and his colleagues or to the sophomore involved. Erdman said he was “not at all impressed with their research or analysis” of the matter. “We thought they would be more impartial and do a better job of research, but we were wrong,” Erdman said.
Lawton objected to student Kaitlyn Mullen recruiting at UNL from an outdoor table for Turning Point USA, a conservative group.
Lawton called Mullen, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a neo-fascist who wants, among other things, to defund public schools.
Mullen recorded a portion of the encounter with her cellphone and took a photo of Lawton flipping her the bird.
UNL officials initially said that because of the national storm over the issue, they would remove Lawton from her classroom as a security measure.
Then some state senators ratcheted up the pressure on UNL, and last month administrators terminated Lawton’s contract as of the end of the 2017-18 school year.
The American Association of University Professors intends to investigate the matter with a visit to UNL next month.
The investigation could lead to an AAUP censure of UNL. The AAUP wrote last month that it was concerned Lawton was suspended or terminated “in response to her speech as a citizen,” that her academic freedom may have been violated and that she wasn’t given due process before a faculty panel.
Leslie Reed, a UNL spokeswoman, said: “We follow due process. As Board of Regents policy makes clear, we value academic freedom for all members of the university academic community.”
Generally, the better the institution, the less it wants to be censured, said Henry Reichman, first vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based AAUP.
“They see it as a taint on their reputation,” Reichman said Friday. “Whether it affects faculty or student recruitment is not entirely clear.”
FIRE says UNL “must immediately reverse its unwise error by rescinding its decision to terminate” Lawton.
“FIRE is aware that your (UNL’s) administration faces significant pressure from, among others, legislators with oversight of the university’s funding,” FIRE wrote in a report to the university. “But that pressure cannot and must not lead to the subordination of UNL faculty members’ expressive rights or the principles of free speech essential to a public university’s mission.”
FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh said his organization had read accounts of the incident, the senators’ op-ed pieces and letters, and other information.
“There is not much confusion about the facts here,” Steinbaugh said. If Lawton used offensive speech, that is still protected, he said.
“Universities require the exchange of views, and you can’t limit one side of it.”
Erdman said he never considered the incident a free speech issue but rather one violating a “code of conduct.” Lawton was an employee of the university and wasn’t supposed to engage in biases or intimidation, he said.
Steinbaugh said flipping the bird is merely “expressive” and can’t be separated from speech.
Lawton called it “satisfyingly ironic” that FIRE found her rights had been violated when it was the senators who wanted FIRE to weigh in.
“I feel vindicated and hope to be back in the classroom soon,” she said.
Three-hundred-fifteen NU professors and retired professors have signed a letter to the university and its Board of Regents. The letter says, in part: “Any ideological interference in university business from members of the state government will be a major blow to the University of Nebraska.”
Julia Schleck, president of the AAUP’s Nebraska conference, said many universities across the country “are suffering under a sudden onslaught of highly politicized accusations of prejudice against conservatives by politicians seeking to undermine the excellence of America’s higher education.”
Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said attempts by conservative legislators to address alleged bias “have picked up steam” recently. Republican power in state legislatures is at an approximately 100-year high, he said.
Higher education funding cuts in Wisconsin and a failed legislative proposal to hire more conservative professors in Iowa are examples of such efforts, Harnisch said.
But Mullen said Lawton’s actions violated her rights. UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green’s disciplinary measures help “ensure something like that doesn’t happen again to anyone,” she said.
Now, she said, she just wants to move on with her academic work at UNL.