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

The graduate student and lecturer accused of harassing a conservative student earlier this year will not return to teaching at UNL, where leaders announced sweeping steps Friday to address a now months-old controversy.

In a letter to Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska state senators, NU system President Hank Bounds acknowledged the continued questions from Nebraskans "asking if their university is welcoming toward all."

The letter also acknowledged the release of emails related to the August confrontation between the conservative student and several faculty and graduate students. The emails, requested by Conservative Review in a public records request, "reflect unprofessional behavior by our employees and I apologize," Bounds wrote.

A spokesperson confirmed that graduate student and lecturer Courtney Lawton will no longer be employed when her contract ends at the end of the school year.

It was also confirmed that Teresa Paulsen, UNL's chief communications officer, and news director Steve Smith were no longer employed by the university. 

In the emails that were released Friday, the public relations employees discussed wanting to downplay the incident by having "surrogates" submit op-ed pieces to local media.

On Aug. 25, Lawton was seen referring to conservative student Kaitlyn Mullen, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, as a "neo-fascist," as the sophomore recruited for the group Turning Point USA outside the Nebraska Union.

Turning Point USA publishes a professor "watch-list" pointing out liberal faculty at campuses across the nation.

A controversy ensued, extending in recent weeks to charges by three state senators that the university is "hostile" toward conservative students, and questioning if its administration can "conduct an honest investigation when a conservative student is involved." 

In Friday's letter, Bounds announced five steps the university would take to address "issues related to freedom of speech and inclusiveness on our campuses," including having Gallup conduct surveys to assess "the campus environment for students, faculty, and staff of diverse political backgrounds." 

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UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green also penned an op-ed piece Friday discussing the incident.

"We will continue to examine ourselves, seek feedback, and ask the tough questions," Green wrote.

The Aug. 25 incident thrust UNL into a national firestorm of criticism from conservative organizations, which called on the university to fire Lawton.

A resulting email conversation between executive vice chancellor Donde Plowman and former UNL administrator Ellen Weissinger also was released. In the email, Weissinger wrote, "I don't think it is 'safe' to be conservative on our campus."

Plowman replied "agreed," but later said she was responding specifically to another part of the email, in which Weissinger wrote "This will pass."

Plowman, who Bounds said will be charged with developing a plan to ensure that no inappropriate political bias exists anywhere on campus, addressed the emails in an interview Friday, joined by Green.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or zhammack@journalstar.com

On Twitter @zach_hammack 

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Zach Hammack is a reporting intern.

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