In 1964, after demonstrations and sit-ins led by the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California at Berkeley, the academic senate of the university passed a resolution declaring that “the content of speech or advocacy shall not be restricted by the University.”
In addition, the Regents supported the senate with the following resolution: “Henceforth, University regulations will not go beyond the purview of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”
These resolutions were won in a long, hard-fought struggle by the Free Speech Movement. The university recognized that the right of free speech included the right of political advocacy, which, at times, can be rude and disrespectful.
More recently in 2014, the chancellor at Berkeley, Nicholas Dirks, sent an email message to the university community in which he attempted to combine the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement with a request for civility.
In his message, Dirks stated that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas.”
In response, the Board of Directors of the Free Speech Movement Archives and the 50th Anniversary Organizing Committee sent a letter to Dirks stating that he seemed to have missed the point of the Free Speech Movement and reminded the chancellor: “The struggle of the FSM was all about the right to political advocacy on campus.”
A similar situation now exists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in relation to an August incident, involving Kaitlyn Mullen, who set up a recruitment table for Turning Point USA near the Nebraska Union.
Mullen, a UNL student, was acting as a representative of Turning Point USA. A professor of English and a graduate teaching assistant have been falsely accused of harassing and intimidating Mullen with the intent of suppressing her intellectual freedom.
No one was trying to suppress her intellectual freedom. Yes, some rude comments were addressed to her; yes, the graduate teaching assistant gave the camera the middle finger.
These expressions, however, are political expressions of advocacy and are protected by academic freedom and the First Amendment. Again, there was no intent to suppress Mullen’s intellectual freedom. It is precisely this kind of political advocacy that the Free Speech Movement fought for and won. Free speech can be rude and disrespectful at times.
On Dec. 8, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nationally recognized organization that defends free speech in education, wrote a letter to UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green stating emphatically that the middle finger was free speech protected by the Constitution. In the letter, FIRE outlined the strong legal basis for their position.
In addition, FIRE requested that Green reinstate the graduate teaching assistant who flipped the finger and lost her teaching assistantship because of political pressure. It is clear that political pressure on NU President Hank Bounds and Chancellor Green eliminated due process for Lawton and resulted in the loss of her teaching assistantship.
On December 17, David Moshman, representing the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON), sent a letter to Chancellor Green not only in support of FIRE's Dec. 8 letter but also addressing other free speech issues that FIRE had brought up to the university in previous letters.
Ronald Reagan, famously or infamously, gave student protesters the middle finger at a UC Regents' meeting. When Reagan became governor of California, he fired Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, in 1967 because he was allegedly too soft on student protests.
Do Nebraskans really want to fight this fight all over again? Of course, we should strive for and teach civility, but we should also support the constitutional right of free speech that includes political advocacy -- even if, at times, it is rude and disrespectful.