Instructor terminated for harassing conservative student loses lawsuit

In 2017, Courtney Lawton yelled atUniversity of Nebraska-Lincoln's then-TPUSA president on campus, calling her a 'neo-fascist Becky.'

U.S. District Judge Brian Buescher dismissed Lawton’s complaint that Lawton's constitutional rights were violated, pointing to the Eleventh Amendment and her failure to provide video evidence.

Former University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) graduate student and instructor Courtney Lawton recently lost her lawsuit against the Board of Regents, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green, and then-NU President Hank Bounds

She had sued the university after being removed from her teaching position for verbally harassing a student holding a Turning Point USA (TPUSA) sign in 2017. 

On the day of the incident, Campus Reform reported that Lawton verbally harassed the then-president of UNL’s TPUSA chapter, Kaitlyn Mullen, calling her a “neo-fascist Becky.”

While putting up her middle finger to the camera, she said in the video, “Neo-fascist Becky right here. Wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids.”

In Lawton’s complaint, she alleged that she was faced with retaliation for engaging in a “protected activity,” denied due process for being dismissed from her teaching duties, and that she suffered an “adverse employment action adversely affecting [her] educational opportunities” due to expressing her First Amendment rights in the “free speech zone.”

However, in his 46-page decision released on June 7, U.S. District Judge Brian Buescher dismissed Lawton’s case. Buescher argued that sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment barred all claims against the Board of Regents. 

[Related: WATCH: ‘Fascists are not welcome on this campus!’: Student attacks TPUSA table]

In addition, the judge could not confirm that Lawton’s First Amendment rights were violated, citing that her claims included “alleged facts” that fell “well short of the line between possibility and plausibility.”

Buescher further explained that “the biggest failing… is in identification of the ‘content’ of Lawton’s speech.” 

Due to Lawton’s failure to include the video as evidence in her lawsuit, he declared that it is impossible to know the content of her speech during the incident, and that “there is simply not enough factual information” in her complaint.

UNL spokesperson Troy Fedderson told Campus Reform, “We are pleased with the resolution of the lawsuit. Beyond that, we have no comment.”

In response to the decision, Lawton told the Lincoln Journal Star that “[the] decision to dismiss my suit affirms that the government is allowed to regulate political speech by jeopardizing the livelihoods of those people who express political opinions contrary to its perspectives.”

This decision has been five years in the making and Campus Reform has been covering the incident since its inception in 2017.

[Related: UPDATE: University put helmet-clad professor on leave. He is now suing the school.]

In Nov. 2017, three Nebraska State Senators questioned whether UNL’s administration was hostile toward conservatives following the Aug. incident. Faculty insisted they did not condone Lawton’s acts and had taken action.

In June 2018, Campus Reform covered the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censuring UNL for taking disciplinary actions against Lawton, stating the university did not abide by the principles of academic freedom for “suspending and failing to reinstate [her].”

Then, in Nov. 2021, the AAUP removed UNL from its censure list, citing that “the regents had brought the relevant system policies into conformance with AAUP standards and that the AAUP representative had reported that conditions for academic freedom at UNL had improved.”

Campus Reform reached out to Courtney Lawton, Kaitlyn Mullen, Ronnie Green, Hank Bounds, and UNL’s TPUSA chapter. Nathan Clark, an attorney for UNL, declined to comment to Campus Reform on the court’s decision. This article will be updated accordingly.

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