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(LJS file)

On April 9, Sam Walker plans to step outside the Center for Public Affairs Research building at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a sign reading "Ban AR-15s" in an exercise of free speech.

The public protest isn't only about the availability of AR-15s, but also about Walker's ability to protest where he wants on campus.

Under a draft regulation of "Use of University Facilities and Grounds" being considered by UNO, the area just outside the emeritus professor's office is not considered a "Designated Public Forum Area or Facility."

Developed in accordance with a policy adopted by the NU Board of Regents in January, Walker says UNO's draft policy ignores decades of doctrine on free speech and expression on college campuses.

"It reduces the university to a child care center," Walker said Friday. "You can play with your blocks there, but you can't play with them over here. You can play democracy over there, but you can't exercise your democratic rights, your free speech rights here."

Walker said he plans to draw attention to the flaws of NU's Commitment to Free Expression, which the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska recently said represents “a major infringement on intellectual freedom” across the university.

In a March 16 statement, AFCON said the policy adopted by the NU Board of Regents places “unconstitutional restrictions” on what and where expression is considered free on the university's four campuses.

Drafted by university attorneys and administrators with input from students, faculty and staff, the free speech policy received unanimous approval from regents during a Jan. 25 meeting even as AFCON President David Moshman and Danielle Conrad of ACLU of Nebraska warned of some of its shortcomings.

In a statement following its March 10 meeting, in which AFCON voted unanimously in opposition to the new policy, the free speech organization said: “Since the passage of this policy, both UNL and UNO have taken actions confirming our worst fears.”

Like the UNO policy governing which areas of campus are designated places for free speech, a similar draft policy for use of facilities and grounds at UNL has been sent to faculty and staff, Moshman said.

UNL also sent a "tip sheet" to faculty in February directing them to “include in the syllabus of each course ‘a safe and civil discourse statement.'"

Drawn from several sources, including experts at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Michigan, the tip sheet was developed by the office of Executive Vice Chancellor Donde Plowman, according to a UNL spokeswoman, “to provide assistance to instructors, lecturers and graduate students in handling difficult situations in the classroom.”

It also refers faculty and lecturers to the Student Code of Conduct, which could subject students to disciplinary actions if their speech is deemed “abusive, harassing, intimidating, or coercive," which according to Moshman has been deemed unconstitutional by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

UNL spokeswoman Leslie Reed said the tip sheet was developed in compliance with the regents’ free speech policy. “Both are efforts to balance the university’s commitment to free expression and academic freedom with safe and civil discourse on campus,” Reed said.

But both Moshman and Walker say the broader NU policy is the problem.

While it has been compared to a 2015 statement from the University of Chicago, the Nebraska policy “has been altered to allow broader censorship and punishment of speech,” AFCON said.

"The new Regents policy has not resulted in any reconsideration of UNL's restrictive speech codes," it added.

Walker, who published a book about hate speech, called the regents' statement "appalling" and said it failed to correctly apply the relevant free speech issues or consider well-established court decisions.

The two former board members of ACLU of Nebraska have asked regents to rescind the policy and develop a new one.

Until the existing policy is changed or a new one adopted, Moshman said UNL and UNO's policies are asking faculty, staff and administrators to enforce "unconstitutional speech code in all classes" and beyond.

Regents Chairman Rob Schafer said the board believes the policy, which received input from a wide range of university stakeholders, "underscores the University's long-standing commitment to freedom of expression while also advancing our goals for civil discourse."

"These are challenging issues, but in the words of our policy, I am proud of the work we've done to strike a 'careful, deliberative and nuanced balance of interests,'" Schafer said in a statement.

Walker said he hopes his April 9 protest raises more public awareness about the NU policy's shortcomings. Both men offered to help craft a new policy.

"I'm going to recommend regents withdraw their policy immediately and spend the summer and fall revising a new policy that is protective of speech," he said.

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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