Kaitlyn Mullen was back at her table in front of the Nebraska Union on Tuesday, pushing “Socialism Sucks” and “Big Government Sucks” fliers and stickers into the hands of interested students passing by.

Mullen, a sophomore from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, became a star in conservative media circles after video of her confrontations with University of Nebraska-Lincoln employees went viral over the weekend.

Mullen's fame was not limited to the internet. On Tuesday, her exploits were enough to lure some UNL students to hear what she was pitching.

"Do you like free markets?" she begins, turning the conversation to Turning Point USA, an organization that trains young conservative activists and has established footholds on 400 university campuses.

Turning Point USA, in addition to advocating for conservative causes, also maintains the "Professor Watchlist," which seeks to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom," according to its website.

Mullen said she sought to launch a UNL chapter of the conservative group this year after spending the summer at a series of conferences among like-minded activisits.

"I really liked Turning Point's message of free markets, limited government and promoting freedom," she said. "It's something I wanted to spread on my campus."

Her first effort was on its way to being a relative success -- more than 50 UNL students signed up to learn more about Turning Point USA -- before videos of her interactions added to the debate surrounding free speech on campus.

The incidents drew statements of support for free speech from university officials on Monday.

"The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is committed to free speech from all viewpoints and to maintaining an atmosphere conducive to learning. We expect our university community to be a place of civil discourse," a statement read.

NU President Hank Bounds described himself as "a vigorous defender of free speech" who stands by the rights of employees and students to express themselves -- even if those messages are provocative.

The debate is nothing new to UNL, although recent events have drawn added attention -- and scrutiny -- to what constitutes free speech on campus.

At a football game against Northwestern University last September, three Husker players knelt in prayer during the national anthem to bring attention to "policies and laws that discriminate and hinder the growth and opportunity of people of color, low-income people, women and other marginalized communities," according to former linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey.

Their actions drew rebuke from some members of the NU Board of Regents, as well as fans, although Bounds said the student-athletes' right to free speech extended to the playing field.

Earlier this year, the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity was suspended after an investigation found several violations of UNL's Student Code of Conduct. The investigation was opened after participants in a January Women's March alleged fraternity members shouted sexually harassing statements.

The fraternity denied those allegations, saying instead they were targeted for voicing support for newly inaugurated President Donald Trump.

Student felt intimidated

The latest incident surrounding free speech on campus has again drawn the ire of conservative groups who say public universities such as UNL discriminate against students and faculty that voice opinions from the right side of the political spectrum.

A video shared by Mullen appears to show a UNL employee directing her to move to a “free speech zone” between the Union Plaza and the Canfield Administration Building typically used by people not affiliated with the university like street preachers and those seeking signatures for ballot initiatives.

Mullen said she questioned the distinction between where she set up originally, within the plaza's boundaries where booths and tables for Greek houses and other recognized student organizations can regularly be found, and the free speech zone she was being moved to before the employee threatened to call police.

“I don’t think it’s fair -- especially in a public space -- to confine us to one area,” said Timon Prax, who coordinates Turning Point USA’s efforts in nine Midwestern states as a regional manager.

UNL’s efforts to push Mullen’s recruitment event to a designated area was another example of what he calls a national trend of public universities discriminating against conservative viewpoints.

A UNL spokesman said the employee was attempting to explain the university’s policy governing use of outdoor space, which requires both university and nonaffiliated groups to submit an “event planning registration” in advance.

The policy was created to ensure students, faculty and members of the public can freely and safely move about the plaza, spokesman Steve Smith said, and not to shut down free speech.

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About an hour after her exchange with the unidentified UNL employee, Mullen said she was confronted by a handful of students and professors carrying signs and chanting statements, including accusing her of being a white nationalist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It was pretty intimidating,” she said. “I was alone, so I was pretty scared.”

At one point, one of those protesting Turning Point USA's presence on campus -- later identified as Amanda Gailey, an associate professor of English -- approached Mullen, asked if she was all right and offered to stay with her until police could escort her home.

“There was a woman who walked up and said she would stand with me until I felt safe, and told them to stop bullying me,” Mullen said.

Gailey was later labeled as a professor who harassed Mullen on Turning Point's website. She's photographed holding a sign near the Nebraska Union that reads "Turning Point: Please put me on your watchlist. Prof. Amanda Gailey."

Another photo shows a UNL employee making a derogatory gesture toward Mullen while holding a sign reading “Just say no! to neo-fascists!”

Missed a 'teachable moment'

Bounds on Monday said faculty at the university who protested Turning Point USA's presence on campus missed a "teachable moment," calling the gesture unprofessional "and not in keeping with the standards of conduct I expect from members of the University of Nebraska community."

"We had an opportunity to model how differing opinions can be exchanged with civility, respect and dignity," he said. "It appears that opportunity was missed."

UNL said in its statement it was reviewing Friday's incidents, and Mullen said both she and Prax met with Chancellor Ronnie Green to discuss the matter. Faculty and staff involved in the incident will also meet with administrators to "reinforce our expectations," Smith said.

Despite the thousands of views and shares her photos and video have gained, Mullen said she hopes to focus the attention on a simple goal.

"I want every student to feel comfortable and safe to express their opinion on campus," she said. "And I want the university to promote healthy dialogue and free speech."

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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