Nebraska system adopts free-speech policy after campus incident

In a new policy, the Board of Regents declares that free speech is a value it "holds dear," and will thus institute educational programs on the First Amendment for faculty and students.

The policy received the full support of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which praised the policy for following in the footsteps of the University of Chicago.

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents is taking steps to protect the First Amendment on campus after a recent encounter between a conservative student and a teaching assistant sparked outrage.

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents recently approved a new freedom of expression policy after a heated confrontation between a conservative student and a teaching assistant sparked national outrage.

The policy, approved January 25, includes plans to educate students and members of the community on the importance of free speech and the First Amendment, while also reiterating the system-wide obligation to respect constitutional rights.

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The new policy comes on the heels of an incident at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, where Teaching Assistant Courtney Lawton and several other instructors harassed Turning Point USA President Katie Mullen while she recruited for new members, calling her a “neo-fascist Becky” and giving her the middle finger.

State lawmakers intervened, with three state representatives sending a letter to the school’s administration demanding that UNL explain its apparent hostility to conservative students and a state senator declaring that Professor Amanda Gaily should be “fired immediately” for her role in the altercation.

Lawton, notably, has been informed that she will not be returning at the end of the spring semester, but UNL has not announced any disciplinary consequences for Gailey.

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The Board of Regents’ new policy states that freedom of expression and speech are both values that the university “holds dear,” calling the First Amendment “a right that is indispensable to its ability to transmit knowledge and fundamental to the university community’s pursuit to discover, explore, interpret, and question knowledge and opinions.”

“As a corollary to the university’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the university community are expected and required to act in conformity with the underlying principles of free expression,” the policy adds, clarifying that university members are free to protest, as long as the act does not interfere with the speech of others.

Additionally, the policy notes that there will be First Amendment education programs put in place for students and faculty.

“Last, yet of great importance, regular opportunities for the university community to educate itself about the First Amendment and this policy, as well as the existence and implementation of campus facilities use programs, are imperative,” the policy states. “The understanding of one’s constitutional rights, and the expectations surrounding those rights, is vital to the free exchange of ideas, information, opinions, and discovery.”

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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has said that it supports the new policy, with Vice President of Policy Reform Azhar Majeed telling Campus Reform that it “largely follows in the footsteps of the University of Chicago’s exemplary free speech policy statement.”

“Overall, FIRE is in support of this policy. We believe it will benefit the students and faculty of the University of Nebraska system by making clear the university's commitment to freedom of expression,” Majeed remarked. “As we noted last month, the policy largely follows in the footsteps of the University of Chicago's exemplary free speech policy statement and adopts some of its key language—something that FIRE has long recommended that other institutions do.”

Majeed also said that FIRE believes the new policy will help protect free speech on Nebraska college campuses as a whole.

“The policy statement makes clear that the system leadership is committed to free speech and intends to uphold free speech principles in practice,” he commented. “As always, FIRE will monitor the situation to make sure that is indeed the case, and we will work to defend any students or professors whose core rights are violated.”

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Some, however, are not as excited about the policy, saying that while the Board of Regents had good intentions in approving the policy, it is “limited in important ways.”

“The new policy is well-intended and has some good provisions but is also flawed and limited in important ways,” President of The Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska David Moshman told Campus Reform, citing a letter to the Board of Regents by the American Civil Liberties Union, which criticizes the policy for being too broad in speech that is not protected.

Moshman did add that he is in favor of teaching students about First Amendment values, but opined that the instruction should also address academic freedom.

“Students should certainly learn about the First Amendment but they should also learn about the value of free expression and academic freedom, which are are consistent with the First Amendment but go beyond its legal requirements,” he concluded.

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