Three months ago, University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Kaitlyn Mullen set up a booth outside the Nebraska Union to promote a conservative political organization.
Missteps in addressing that situation thrust Nebraska’s flagship public university into the spotlight regarding free speech on college campuses. Since then, a graduate student who berated Mullen was barred from teaching, three state senators accused university leaders of “discriminatory actions” toward conservative students and UNL has begun a close examination of First Amendment concerns.
It appears the campus and capitol are still not done with that fiasco. By now, though, they should be.
One incident does not prove the epidemic Sens. Tom Brewer, Steve Erdman and Steve Halloran alleged. In fact, UNL officials have gone above and beyond what was needed to demonstrate they were legitimately concerned about claims of prejudice against conservative students. The outline Chancellor Ronnie Green laid out in Tuesday’s Local View shows a commitment to examining and quashing any potential intolerance.
There’s not been an iota of proof to demonstrate that Mullen’s situation is somehow indicative of institutional bias against conservatives. Nothing has proved that UNL did anything beyond compounding some of its own errors in its initial handling of an isolated incident.
The Journal Star spoke to conservative students and faculty, none of whom felt discrimination for their beliefs. Longtime UNL professor Gerard Harbison, who’s sponsored many conservative groups on campus, called the furor around the situation a “witch hunt” after condemning the actions of Turning Point USA in a Local View in September.
Yes, it’s safe to say UNL – or any college campus, for that matter – skews more liberal than the population at large. But UNL bestows degrees on Nebraskans of all political ideologies, meaning it must produce plenty of conservatives, too, in a state this red.
First Amendment debates on campus have quickened in recent years, with conservative speech no doubt being under attack in certain situations.
This is a discussion that needs more prominent voices to realize that the best answer isn’t to shut down unpopular viewpoints; the marketplace of ideas is infinitely more vibrant and productive when speech isn’t shouted down. Yet, the senators used accusatory tones that argued UNL favored liberal students over conservative ones.
So, maybe it should come as no surprise that members of the Legislature, whose officially nonpartisan designation is being strained, tried to manufacture yet another partisan us-vs.-them, conservative-vs.-liberal fight. Besides, action regarding the university’s governance must be taken by 49 senators, not three.
Until and unless more proof surfaces of some stealth conspiracy to discriminate and discredit conservatives, it’s time to bury the hatchet. Nebraska’s largest university and its senators need to stop squabbling and instead work together toward meaningful advances to benefit the state.