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Last week the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter to University of Nebraska Chancellor, Ronnie Green, instructing him to reinstate graduate teaching assistant Courtney Lawton as a lecturer in UNL’s English Department by December 22. The letter was published in a Lincoln Journal Star article on December 10. This was a troubling development because all three Senators, Sen. Brewer, Sen. Halloran and Sen. Erdman, had previously asked the university’s administration to work with FIRE to rewrite their free speech policies. As much as we would like to commend UNL for reaching out to FIRE, it appears that FIRE was the one to initiate contact with the university, or at least they were encouraged to do so by letters written by the UNL chapters of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
While we do not completely agree with all of the findings nor the final recommendation offered by FIRE, we are not surprised by their conclusions given the limited amount of information they used to draw their conclusions. For instance, FIRE stated in the letter, “Our understanding of the facts of this matter is derived from public reports and correspondence, including letters sent by the UNL chapters of the American Association of University Professors on September 13, September 15, and November 28, 2017. Because the facts appear to be well-known and undisputed, this letter incorporates by reference the facts recounted in those letters.” So, Fire relied heavily upon the University and the AAUP, both of which have vested interests in protecting and perpetuating the prevailing culture on our university campuses. However, we maintain that these sources are extremely biased and one-sided. FIRE never contacted Kaitlyn Mullen or her attorney, nor did they ever contact or interview Sen. Brewer, Sen. Halloran or Sen. Erdman. As a matter of fact, FIRE never invited the Senators to contribute facts to the case until after the publication of their letter.
It is necessary to have all of the facts straight in order to make a right judgment about what actually transpired outside the Nebraska Union on August 25. For instance, FIRE never inquired about the proximity of Ms. Lawton’s protest to Ms. Mullen’s TPUSA table. Proximity matters. Proximity matters because Lawton protested directly in front of Ms. Mullen’s TPUSA table, effectively sharing the same space as Ms. Mullen. By demonstrating directly in front of the TPUSA table, Ms. Lawton was able to block access to the table. By sharing the same space and blocking access to the table, Ms. Lawton infringed upon Ms. Mullen’s First Amendment right to freely express herself.
FIRE never considered the pre-made protest signs of Lawton and Gailey, nor did they ever bother to ask who called the police that day, nor did they ever bother to investigate the reasons for the missing eight minutes of video tape. When the fact of Lawton’s proximity is coupled with the additional facts that Lawton and Gailey used pre-made protest signs, that another unknown employee of the University asked Ms. Mullen to move her table to a free speech zone, that eight minutes of video tape are mysteriously missing from the video recording of the incident, and that Ms. Mullen received a police escort away from the Nebraska Union by no request of her own, the facts suggest that this was a premeditated, pre-planned and well-orchestrated attempt by the English Department to shut down the recruiting efforts of Ms. Mullen and TPUSA.
Additionally, the letter by FIRE spends a vast amount of time addressing Ms. Lawton’s use of the middle finger while completely ignoring other key phrases used in her statement which were recorded on video tape, especially: “Neo-fascist Becky right here…wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids.” While Ms. Lawton made a number of unsubstantiated claims about what Ms. Mullen may or may not want to destroy, which unfortunately is a commonplace political strategy used today, FIRE never addressed Lawton’s use of the term “Becky.” FIRE has not been the only organization to ignore Lawton’s use of this term. Both the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World Herald newspapers have ignored this term in numerous articles when referencing or quoting from Ms. Lawton about the incident on August 25. They have referenced the term “Neo-fascist” with no problem, but not the term “Becky”. This is very concerning.
Why don’t these organizations address the term “Becky”? According to www.urbandictionary.com the term “Becky” is a white girl who is self-obsessed and who performs certain sex acts. Now, the words used in the urban dictionary to define a “Becky” are actually much more profane and graphic in nature. You are welcome to read them on your own. The use of the term “Becky” is both racist and sexist. So, Ms. Lawton was attacking Ms. Mullen’s gender and race. Calling someone a “Becky” is not political speech; it is racist and sexist speech! One has to wonder that if Ms. Lawton had been passing out literature for some other organization and the use of a racial or gender identity slur was used to describe her, what would the reaction have been by the University or the media? Would it have been the same?
We support FIRE’s position on “no free-speech zones.” Although the University has stated that there are no such zones on campus, we now know that an unidentified University employee used those terms to redirect Ms. Mullen on August 25. With proper education of all University employees and students, we feel that this particular issue can be easily resolved.
We also agree with FIRE’s statement that “A university may impose professionalism standards on its faculty members’ conduct in an educational setting,” and that, “A university could penalize a lecturer or professor who engages in this [kind of] behavior during a class.” However, Lawton has argued that because she was not in a classroom setting, this kind of “punishment” does not apply. To the contrary, we maintain that whenever a professor leaves the classroom, he or she remains a professor. The role of being a professor does not change simply by walking out the classroom door; instead, he or she remains a member of the UNL faculty, especially while on campus grounds and should conduct himself or herself accordingly.
The problem of political bias on campus is not limited to this particular situation. We have received correspondence from former students at UNL and UNO, as well as from other campuses about classroom decorum, fear of being punished, actually being punished, and for speaking or writing an opinion counter to that of the lecturer or professor. So far, the chant from the University has been, “This is an isolated incident.” However just as we have seen with the recent sexual misconduct within the entertainment, media, and political arenas, an “isolated incident” is often the opening to the truth about a much more systemic problem. Clearly, this is no longer about a single incident.
By way of their own admission, FIRE’s letter to Chancellor Green only addressed the incident from the very biased perspective of the AAUP’s “censure” edict. We believe their only motive was to protect the rights of graduate teaching assistant, Ms. Lawton. However, this is a gross misrepresentation of what actually transpired on August 25. We have maintained from the very beginning that this was never a free-speech issue for Ms. Lawton. Instead, we have always agreed with NU Regent, Hal Daub, when he said to Coby Mach on KLIN radio that this was not a free speech issue – it is a conduct issue. It is a conduct issue precisely because it appears to have been a premeditated attempt to deprive Ms. Mullen of her right to free speech on campus.
Contrary to the opinions of FIRE and the AAUP, the First Amendment does not give university professors (or any other private citizen for that matter) the right to harass students or to deprive them of their right to freely express themselves on campus. UNL’s Professional Ethics Statement forbids discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, and even the very liberal and progressive University of California at Berkeley maintains in their own Code of Conduct that professors may be disciplined for “Discrimination, including harassment, against a student on political grounds…” We would also like to remind our readers that the Statement on Professional Ethics provided by the AAUP states that professors are expected to “avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students.” So, the fact that this incident occurred at the Nebraska Union does not excuse these instructors from the English Department. We encourage administrators at the University of Nebraska to uphold these same standards of conduct which apply to “ANY” exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of students.
The University of Nebraska exists for the primary purpose of educating students. It is not a forum for professors to proselytize or to shut down organizations they don’t like. Whenever the conduct of faculty nefariously distracts from this most fundamental purpose, corrective action must be taken. As State Senators, we are called to maintain a forum where people can be heard, study problems, right injustices, and when needed, to create legislative solutions to correct them. Therefore, we will continue to safeguard the wellbeing and rights of students attending our State Universities.