courtney lawton.jpg

In 2017, Courtney Lawton asks a question during a town hall meeting held by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.

Ten months after the incident, a brief conflict between a liberal graduate student and a conservative undergraduate still shadows the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

A national professors organization Saturday put UNL administrators on its censure list, a formal rebuke for the way they handled discipline against the liberal graduate student-lecturer. The American Association of University Professors unanimously censured UNL at its meeting in Washington.

The Aug. 25 incident, in which Courtney Lawton belittled and insulted undergraduate Kaitlyn Mullen, has become a prized moment for conservatives who want to brand American universities as cauldrons of liberalism.

Mullen, who was outdoors recruiting that day for the conservative Turning Point USA, took video on her phone of Lawton’s protest, and it became national news.

As the fallout continued, UNL administrators found themselves squeezed between conservative politicians who sought harsh punishment for Lawton and professors who wanted free speech defended.

“The University of Nebraska can’t win either way,” Richard Vedder, an Ohio University emeritus professor who studies higher education, said earlier this month.

UNL first removed Lawton from the classroom in which she taught, supposedly as a safety precaution. The university and Lawton had received disturbing messages. Ultimately, though, UNL said Lawton wouldn’t teach in the future. The AAUP said this amounted to a dismissal without a proper hearing.

[Read more: UNL lecturer removed from classroom duties after confrontation with conservative student]

The AAUP said UNL also wilted under the pressure of three Nebraska state senators and other angry conservatives.

UNL argued that the AAUP misinterpreted the university’s response. Lawton was allowed to do research to the end of the 2017-18 school year, UNL said, and she received a chance to have a hearing. Lawton rejected that chance, UNL said.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said Saturday that he was disappointed by the AAUP’s decision.

“We are proud to provide a world- class education and to be one of the fastest growing research institutions, thanks in large part to our tremendous faculty,” Green said.

Lawton said in an email: “I would have preferred that NU’s administration respected academic freedom and due process in handling my case in the first place, rather than getting censured after the fact.”

UNL now is one of 56 institutions on the AAUP’s censure list. A censure means the AAUP believes a college’s leaders have failed to live up to principles of tenure and academic freedom formed in 1940 by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bob Haller, a retired UNL English professor, said the 1940 rules aren’t subjective and are politically neutral. The policies are widely accepted by many organizations of higher education, “and this is where the force comes” with AAUP declarations, said Haller, a longtime AAUP member.

The University of Missouri went on the list two years ago for dismissing a faculty member who called for “muscle” to remove a journalist from a protest.

Vedder said he didn’t know if the UNL case rose to the level of censure. “I think this is one of the flimsier censures I’ve heard of,” he said.

But Haller said it’s a serious matter when political pressure compels a school to compromise established principles.

The Nebraska State College System went on the censure list in the 1960s when Wayne State College rescinded the contract of a new professor. The college had learned that the professor, Henry St. Onge, let a radical California radio commentator speak from his porch when St. Onge was a doctoral student in Ohio.

The radio commentator had clashed with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was notorious for its pursuit of communists in the 1950s.

The state colleges changed their policies in 1989, and the AAUP removed them from the censure list. The state college system also tried to patch it up with St. Onge, who was retired and living in Maine.

The college trustees offered him $3,000 to come for a talk on academic freedom. The professor turned them down.

Rick covers higher education for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @RickRuggles. Phone: 402-444-1123.

Recommended for you

(10) comments


Well this "watchdog group" can get the heck outta Nebraska and MIND THEIR OWN FRIGGIN BUSINESS! The University didn't jump to action without consideration ... and I AM A CONSERVATIVE ... I APPRECIATE that they looked at all sides and that they didn't act like ABC or THE FOOD NETWORK or THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION!


Thank you for upholding free speech and being a good example of resistance to the vile liberal university professor organisation.

Debo Peppers

God Bless America Brother Kevin!


All you need to do is listen to Coutney's ravings on her NPR interview to get a flavor for this person. She is a self appointed arbiter for all that is "right and correct" who spends her time policing numerous venues in Lincoln in order to seek out and destroy anyone or anything that deviates from the ultra left wing orthodoxy which she has embraced (and which has clearly infected the majority of academics in this country today). The questions should be asked as to who is running the Dept of English at UNL...who gave this zealot admission to the PhD program there? The UNL administration (which I routinely berate for other miscues) was entirely correct in this matter.

Debo Peppers

George, if anyone would take the time to look into her, they would see she is as radical as they get. She should have never had a job in education of any kind. I appreciate your post!

Jim Redelfs

I have reconsidered my position on this issue. Institutions of “higher” learning everywhere should ENCOURAGE its foaming, leftist staffers to freely and publicly harass and intimidate anyone they choose as long as there is video of the confrontation.

With outrages such as this, combined with the “fine” public performances of the likes of Samantha Bee, Robert De Niro and Kathy Griffin, it’s entirely possible that most Republicans won’t even have to mount a campaign for November.

The “liberal graduate student-lecturer”, Courtney Lawton, did far more to advance the cause and prospects of Turning Point USA than the brave efforts of the recipient of her venom.

“…conservatives…want to brand American universities as cauldrons of liberalism.”

Correction: They branded themselves and it’s a done deal. The academy has been virtually owned by The Left™ and communists (mostly interchangeable terms) for a long time. It’s time to clean house. 🎓

Debo Peppers

On point Brother Jim! #Truth

Eric Von

Also keep wondering why no one moves here.


Except the population is growing. Small growth but 20th in the nation.

Debo Peppers

As a UNL Alum, the University earned this by making poor choices and allowing liberalism to intimidate free speech. I am in education now and encourage my students to really reconsider attending UNL.

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.