Free speech

Sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen engages fellow students outside the Nebraska Union last August, sharing the message of Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit organization that advocates for fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star file photo

University of Nebraska administrators are pushing forward a conversation about free speech and civil political discourse on their campuses while also reassuring faculty and the Board of Regents that the values at the heart of the university remain intact.

NU system President Hank Bounds told regents Tuesday the university has joined a “broader conversation” centered on freedom of speech and freedom of expression taking place on college campuses across the country.

“As I see it, Nebraska can address these issues in one of two ways,” Bounds said. “We can let them divide us. Or we can work through these tough issues together in a way that makes Nebraska the best place to live, to work, to go to school, to do research, to be a student.

“I think we have an opportunity to be a model for really taking on these difficult questions in a way that moves us forward,” he added.

But faculty have raised concerns that university administrators are allowing external political pressure to dictate their actions, circumventing academic freedom and due process in the process.

Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English and the president of Nebraska’s American Association of University Professors conference, read aloud an open letter signed by 315 current and former faculty during a public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting.

The letter accuses Gov. Pete Ricketts, state Sens. Steve Erdman of Bayard, Tom Brewer of Gordon and Steve Halloran of Hastings and political allies of leveraging a politically charged confrontation between a lecturer and undergraduate student into “a sustained attack” on the university.

Regents have remained largely silent in the weeks and months following the August incident on UNL's campus that led lawmakers to say that conservative students are not welcome on campus.

That silence persisted Tuesday, even as Bounds and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green expressed their goal of hosting a community dialogue about free speech and academic freedom on campus, as well as the strategies to foster that conversation.

The university’s governing board listened quietly as a handful of faculty members outlined external political pressures they see as threatening to erode academic freedom on campus.

David Moshman, a UNL professor emeritus of educational psychology, said he signed the letter but agrees with the lawmakers that the “concerns of conservative students on the UNL campus are entirely understandable under the circumstances and deserve a serious response.”

But he also said regents can assert leadership over the situation.

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“You don’t need to choose between protecting the academic freedom of the university and protecting the rights of conservative students — you must do both,” Moshman said.

Moshman said most of the behavior of the six people who protested conservative student Kaitlyn Mullen’s recruiting event at the Nebraska Union on Aug. 25 — “however rude” — was protected speech and expression under the First Amendment.

The actions by administrators that followed, however, were not in keeping with procedures outlined by university policy, Moshman said, describing the disciplinary steps taken by Green as a “special procedure” created for the singular event.

“Then the violation of due process got worse after powerful forces beyond UNL refused to accept the results of the chancellor’s process,” Moshman said.

He added that regents are responsible for ensuring the intellectual freedom for all students and employees at the university are protected from external pressures, as well as to uphold the rights of its students and faculty to academic due process.

“Fortunately for all of us, nobody suspects the regents of having a secret left-wing agenda of abusing conservative students,” Moshman said. “The regents can credibly assure the state that the University of Nebraska is serious about free speech for all and then we must all make sure this is true.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education.

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