Watchdogs slam University of Nebraska free speech proposals

Two political organizations are blasting University of Nebraska’s new free speech policies, particularly a proposal to create deceptively-named “free speech zones” on campus. 

According to The Omaha World-Herald, the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska both took issue with the university’s new policy draft, arguing that it limits free expression. 

[RELATED: Nebraska system adopts free-speech policy after campus incident]

The criticism comes in the wake of the school’s effort to promote civil discourse on campus and reevaluate the policies that regulate speech across the university system.

Earlier this year, the university’s Board of Regents approved a broad “Commitment to Free Expression” statement in response to a controversial incident in which a conservative student was berated by faculty members for attempting to recruit members to a conservative organization at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Despite being praised for its intent to promote free expression by some groups, the school is now facing renewed criticism over the language of subsequent policy proposals that First Amendment advocates fear could end up restricting speech. 

According to The Lincoln Journal Star, the draft of the “Use of University Facilities and Grounds” policy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha carves out “designated public forum” zones for political expression, a provision that critics find questionable. 

”It reduces the university to a child care center,” emeritus professor Sam Walker told the Journal Star earlier this month. “You can play with your blocks there, but you can’t play with them over here. You can play democracy over there, but you can’t exercise your democratic rights, your free speech rights here.”

[RELATED: Harassment of conservative student prompts free speech bill]

Both AFCON and the ACLU of Nebraska have have been skeptical about the language of the original free speech provision, arguing that it may lead to unintended consequences.

“Since the passage of this policy, both UNL and UNO have taken actions confirming our worst fears,” AFCON said on March 10, as reported by the publication. The free speech group further criticized the NU Board of Regents the following week, accusing it of placing “unconstitutional restrictions” on free expression.

Another controversial move that sparked condemnation from free speech advocates is a so-called “tip sheet” that was distributed last month, which urges professors to encourage “respectful and civil” conversations in the classroom, according to the Herald.

Azhar Majeed, vice president of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told Campus Reform that the “tip sheet” could have a “chilling effect” on free expression, and stressed that the university still has several speech code policies that are problematic.

“It will be up to what we see in individual campuses…[and] how exactly they will interpret and apply this [Use of University Facilities and Grounds] guide,” Majeed explained. “If they interpret it and enforce it in such a way as to create free speech zones on campus, obviously that’s a problem.”

University of Nebraska spokespersons did not immediately respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment.

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