Campus Reform | This Kansas student is suing his university for over alleged First Amendment violations

This Kansas student is suing his university for over alleged First Amendment violations

Haskell Indian Nations University threatened discipline against a student journalist attempting to carry out basic inquiries.

The student filed suit against the university in federal court in response.

Days after the lawsuit became national news, the Haskell administration forbade faculty from criticizing the administration.

The administration has since backtracked on its speech policies.

Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas threatened to discipline a student journalist attempting to carry out basic inquiries. The university backtracked after the student sued in response and federal officials intervened.

According to a suit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, Jared Nally — editor-in-chief of The Indian Leader — the university “is violating the First Amendment by retaliating against them for engaging in protected expression and journalistic activities and by enforcing a sweeping and vague policy on campus expression that was applied to Nally to impose an unconstitutional prior restraint.”

The suit stated that Haskell President Ronald Graham issued Nally a “directive” demanding that he avoid criticizing university officials or “requesting information from government agencies while identifying himself as a student journalist.” Referring to the school’s code of conduct, Graham also “threatened disciplinary action if Nally failed to show Haskell officials ‘appropriate respect’ by continuing to engage in these protected activities.”

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As detailed in a letter sent to administrators by the Native American Journalists Association, the Student Press Law Center, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Nally provoked Graham’s directive by asking the local police department for confirmation of the death of a prominent community member’s death so that he could write a death notice.

“Your ‘directive’ to Nally is an appalling and unequivocal departure from the First Amendment, betraying willful blindness to the basic concepts of constitutional rights,” read the letter.

Haskell withheld $10,000 in the newspaper’s funding “without any notice or explanation.”

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The lawsuit also mentioned that three decades ago, the same district court ruled in favor of student leadership of The Indian Review after the school temporarily halted publication “in retaliation for critical coverage.”

“Haskell is making it very clear that they put institutional reputation above student rights,” said FIRE attorney Katlyn Patton in a press release. “We’re not only defending Jared’s constitutional rights, but the rights of all Haskell students, and student reporters across the country. In doing so, we’re showing public institutions that the First Amendment is non-negotiable.”

United States Bureau of Indian Education spokeswoman Klarissa Jensen told Campus Reform that the department “does not comment on matters in active litigation.”

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Days after Nally’s lawsuit became national news, Graham issued another directive silencing Haskell employee criticism of his administration.

The directive said that Graham had faced “detractors” since he assumed the role of university president, and told “employees, supervisors, and managers” that they are “always expected to be professional and conduct themselves in a manner that reflects positively” on the school.

“Derogatory opinions regarding coworkers, colleagues, and supervisors or administration is not protected under ‘academic freedom’ and is not consistent with the standards of conduct expected of all Federal employees,” it read.

"Now Haskell has chosen to open another front in its war on free expression,” FIRE program officer Lindsie Rank told Campus Reform. “Haskell administrators took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. I implore the university to end its betrayal of that oath and respect people’s basic rights.”

In early April, however, Graham backtracked on his administration’s speech policies after the Bureau of Indian Education intervened.

“Haskell’s latest directives sent a clear message to faculty: The administration is watching and is prepared to violate the Constitution to protect its reputation,” said Rank. “We’re relieved that the BIE finally stepped in to preserve faculty rights, but the Haskell administration has repeatedly tried to suppress dissent, and the BIE — which operates the university — should have acted long ago to end the pattern of rights violations endemic to Haskell.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft