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.

In a pair of October letters to lawmakers, University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green defended the university’s response to an Aug. 25 confrontation between a student recruiting for a conservative group and a graduate student lecturer.

Both messages were in response to an editorial penned by first-year state Sens. Steve Erdman of Bayard, Steve Halloran of Hastings and Tom Brewer of Gordon, who accused the university of being a hostile place for students with conservative political beliefs.

The senators posed questions on whether UNL could fairly investigate an incident involving graduate student and lecturer Courtney Lawton and second-year student Kaitlyn Mullen, who was recruiting for conservative student group Turning Point USA.

“To put all of this in perspective, the genesis of your letter appears to be one 20-minute interaction at the university that we appropriately addressed,” Green wrote in response on Oct. 31.

“Chancellor Green has provided you a detailed review of the facts surrounding the incident that took place almost 10 weeks ago at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” Bounds added in his own letter. “I fully agree with it.”

But late last Friday, Bounds and Green changed course. A spokeswoman for Bounds on Monday said what changed was their decision to allow Lawton to teach at the university.

“The teaching assistant involved in the August 25 incident will not be teaching at the University of Nebraska,” Bounds wrote Friday in a letter to Gov. Pete Ricketts, Speaker Jim Scheer and other state senators.

Green submitted an editorial to Nebraska newspapers Friday evening, saying Lawton’s conduct, in which she made an inappropriate gesture toward Mullen and referred to her as a neo-fascist was “unacceptable.”

“(S)he has not been teaching at the university since that time. We communicated today to the grad student that she will not teach at our university going forward because of this inappropriate behavior,” Green wrote.

Last Friday’s dismissal came one day after Bounds and Green met with the senators at the Capitol, a meeting that lasted two hours and covered a wide range of topics, Brewer said in a phone interview Monday.

The senators and administrators also discussed the discipline -- or lack thereof -- imposed upon Lawton by the university, Brewer said.

UNL had previously removed Lawton from the classroom in September after concluding an investigation into the Aug. 25 incident, citing safety and not disciplinary reasons.

Brewer said that didn’t sit well with the three senators, all Republicans, who told the university administrators they thought Lawton should be fired.

“We don’t have any authority to do the firing, we just said that was the right action to take with her,” Brewer said.

Reached by phone Monday morning, Halloran directed comment to his legislative staff, who did not return the Journal Star’s phone call. Erdman did not respond to an interview request.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Lawton said she was contacted at 10:30 a.m. Friday to schedule a meeting with Green, assuming the two would be discussing her return to the classroom next semester.

Green and Donde Plowman, UNL’s executive vice chancellor, later met with reporters at 1 p.m. Friday to discuss emails that would be made public following a public records request from Conservative Review and other topics surrounding the political climate at UNL.

Asked about Lawton at that meeting, Green said the university had “dealt with that issue.”

“It is a multi-faceted issue we investigated, we took action, we’ve talked about that,” he said. “We are still addressing that issue. It’s not done -- we are still addressing that issue with that individual.”

A few hours later, at a 4 p.m. meeting, UNL’s top administrators fired Lawton, telling her she “would not be returning to the classroom because ‘we just can’t put this to bed,’” Lawton said. “They said, ‘it’s at that level.’”

Lawton said Green and Plowman “expressed admiration for my teaching and my scholarship” before firing her, but in terminating her employment “circumvented clearly established procedures.”

“Probably because of outside pressure,” she said on Monday.

UNL’s Graduate Student Assembly said administrators should treat every student, including graduate students, with consistency, transparency and fairness in meting out discipline.

“Our disciplinary standards and terms of employment should be determined by the university’s values and regulations, and not external pressures,” the assembly said in a statement.

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

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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