State Sen. Steve Halloran said he’s moving forward with his bill to require the University of Nebraska to report disruptions to free speech on campuses to the Legislature.
While he commended NU on its work expressing its commitment to free speech on campuses, Halloran said he has no plans to withdraw his proposal.
“I think it would be counterintuitive for me to withdraw a bill on free speech and not have a hearing which would allow people to express their free speech on the bill,” he said.
His bill (LB718) — called the Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act — will go before the Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
The bill was based on a model by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Arizona. Similar bills have been introduced in at least nine other states.
As originally written, the bill required the NU Board of Regents to create a special committee to annually report “barriers to or incidents of disruption” of free speech on campus to the Legislature, and to make those reports available in easy-to-find locations on each campus’s website.
Regents appeared ready to fight LB718 on Thursday, signing a statement indicating the board’s opposition to “any legislation which usurps the powers and duties of the board.”
Halloran’s bill number was initially included in the statement, but later amended out before the board gave its unanimous approval to the statement.
The Hastings senator said LB718 has been modified in response to reaction to the bill that it targeted NU specifically. “We amended that so it includes all state colleges and community colleges,” Halloran said.
NU also planned to oppose LB718 on constitutional grounds, turning to a 1977 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling in Board of Regents v. Exon, which found the Legislature cannot dictate policy or practices to the university’s governing body, which is independent under the state constitution.
Halloran said based on a reading of the “Commitment to Free Expression,” he believes regents and senators have similar goals. But he said the reporting requirement in LB718 would create a mechanism outlasting university administrators, regents, as well as state senators.
“If there’s not something codified in law for reporting from them how they are implementing their policies, you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “We’d like to have it a little more public than what they wish for.
“They want to make sure we don’t micromanage them, and we don’t intend to do that,” he added. “But on the other hand, the university is their responsibility; our responsibility is for accountability to the public.”
Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, who along with Halloran and Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon has been a vocal critic of how the NU handled a confrontation between an undergraduate student and a lecturer on campus, brushed aside the regents’ statement.
“That doesn’t restrict us from what we have to do,” Erdman said. “We will do what we feel is necessary, regardless of what they say. I don’t function by their rules.
“We pass laws. They set policies for the university,” he added.