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

Adopting a line from the Watergate scandal, three state lawmakers have publicly questioned the content of emails exchanged between current and former University of Nebraska administrators.

The senators have also sought answers to why it took the university more than two months to make the emails public after they'd first turned them over through a public records request.

“The question that comes to mind after seeing the email release is what did they know and when did they know it,” state Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said in a phone interview on Nov. 21.

Erdman said he was disappointed that neither NU President Hank Bounds nor University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green disclosed the records, including an email where a former UNL administrator shared concerns over treatment of conservative students on campus -- during a Nov. 16 meeting with senators.

A day later Bounds sent a letter to Gov. Pete Rickets and all state senators apologizing for the content of several emails, which were previously turned over in response to two open records requests.

The emails released included an Aug. 31 exchange between Donde Plowman, UNL’s executive vice chancellor, and her predecessor, Ellen Weissinger, in which the former senior vice chancellor says “I don’t think it’s ‘safe’ to be conservative on our campus.”

The emails followed an emotional confrontation on campus between graduate student lecturer Courtney Lawton and Kaitlyn Mullen, an undergraduate student recruiting for the conservative group Turning Point USA.

Once it became clear her initial email would go public, Weissinger wrote a follow-up email to clarify she “never once worried” that any student with conservative beliefs was in physical danger on campus, only that some students might be hesitant to voice their views in classrooms that don’t seem welcoming to an exchange of ideas.

She said her emails to Plowman were meant to reassure the administrator that the heated climate, in which a pair of threatening messages from a Florida man were left on Plowman's office phone, would pass.

“I probably shouldn’t have voiced my personal two cents worth in that email,” Weissinger wrote in her follow-up note. “In great part because I know that Donde has a different and more current understanding of these issues. But also because I was writing in a very emotional moment that didn’t lend itself to nuanced sentences.”

According to the senators, the first time they saw the email was on Nov. 17, a day after their face-to-face meeting with university system and campus leaders. 

“To have them set across the table from us on Thursday and outright deny there is a problem at the University of Nebraska, that there is no bias and everything is fine, and then on Friday to release that letter of apology, is absurd,” Erdman said.

The emails at question were first turned over nearly two months earlier, in response to a public records request from Lincoln attorney J.L. Spray, a former executive director of the Nebraska GOP.

The Journal Star recently asked to review public records requests made to the university after the Aug. 25 confrontation on campus.

Of the more than 60 pages released to the Journal Star, a handful were copies of requests made by representatives of the state Republican Party, or from media outlets like Turning Point News and Conservative Review.

Kenny Zoeller, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, sought messages on Aug. 29 between English Associate Professor Amanda Gailey and Lawton, including emails containing the names of Republican officials or Betsy Riot, a protest organization with a Lincoln presence.

Spray’s request followed on Sept. 11, four days after UNL said it had removed Lawton from the classroom. It sought records from Plowman as well as communication between the provost, Gailey and Lawton. He also sought a directory of UNL employees.

About 180 pages of records were turned over to Spray on Sept. 21, mostly emails following the Aug. 25 confrontation on the UNL campus that sparked outrage as images from the incident were shared across social media.

Both Erdman and state Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, who joined Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon in writing a late October editorial raising questions about the treatment of conservative-minded students at UNL, said they were unaware of the records, including the email with Weissinger's comment, turned over to Spray.

A little more than a week after NU administrators responded to the senators' editorial by defending their actions in removing Lawton from the classroom, but not firing her, the university received another public records request from writer Chris Pandolfo of Conservative Review.

The request — using nearly identical language to that included in Spray’s request — sought specific records using the words “Voicemail referencing Turning Point USA Incident,” “conservative” or “tolerant.”

The subject line of Plowman’s Aug. 31 email to Weissinger was “Voicemail referencing Turning Point Incident.” Weissinger’s response to Plowman includes both “conservative” and “tolerant."

Pandolfo, based in South Carolina, declined to say if he coordinated with Spray or anyone else in Nebraska before making his records request. Conservative Review posted its story on the emails on Nov. 20.

“I suggest this is why many Americans think reporters are the scum of the earth. Asking another journalist to unethically disclose hypothetical sources? You can’t be serious,” Pandolfo wrote in an email to the Journal Star.

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As debate over the emails and their release continues, faculty at UNL said in a Nov. 27 open letter they have been "aggressively targeted by sweeping open records requests made by the governor’s allies.” More than 290 faculty across the university system had signed the letter as of Saturday afternoon.

In a recent request, dated Nov. 22, Spray asked the university to turn over emails between UNL English Department Chairman Marco Abel and other faculty or administrators over a five-month period, including communications “from any email address” controlled by Abel.

Spray did not return the Journal Star’s phone calls Thursday or Friday.

An spokeswoman said NU only wrote the letter to Ricketts and the Legislature after Conservative Review's request and not Spray's because it was likely the emails would be widely shared.

"At that point, it seemed clear the documents would be made public," spokeswoman Melissa Lee said. "We made the decision we wanted to share what we had found."

Sen. Brewer said the emails, including comments from former UNL public relations staffers looking to spin the story, have reaffirmed his drive to continue seeking answers from the university.

“We’re the ones who are going to fight the good fight,” he said. “The university can make life difficult if they want to. They did not answer our questions — if they would have done that in the beginning rather than come out with Green’s attack, this wouldn’t have went anywhere.”

Sen. Erdman said he believes the emails shed light on “an issue that has infiltrated all college campuses,” in which conservative students do not feel comfortable sharing their political views, including each campus in the NU system.

“It never was our intent to damage the university or to make them look bad, but it is our intent to solve the problem,” he said.

Gailey, who was photographed on Aug. 25 asking Turning Point USA to include her on its “Professor Watchlist,” said Republican operatives are abusing open records requests “to figure out what private citizens' politics are.”

“When you are in a state under single-party control with an extremely wealthy ruler whose single party exempts themselves from public scrutiny while using the power of the law to pry through these private political communications of dissidents, you would think you were reading about an oppressive state on the other side of the planet,” Gailey said.

“But you’re reading about Nebraska.”

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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