The University of Nebraska Board of Regents enacted a “Commitment to Free Expression,” which outlines the university’s free speech policies and facilities use guidelines Thursday.
NU was among the universities experiencing “heightened focus on the First Amendment” across the country, President Hank Bounds said, after video of a confrontation between a student and a lecturer at UNL was shared widely via social media last August.
“While our awareness has increased, freedom of expression is certainly not a new concept at our university,” Bounds said. “We are now and have always been dedicated to free expression as guaranteed by our U.S. Constitution.”
Even before the August incident, Bounds said administrators were working on a statement reaffirming NU’s commitment to individual rights and academic freedom.
According to the policy, members of the university community can comment, criticize and contest others’ views, but they must do so in a way not to prevent the ability of others to also express those freedoms.
NU encourages civil discourse and recognizes that all speech is not protected by law, saying certain threatening, discriminating or defamatory speech could be subject to penalty under the Student Code of Conduct or regents’ bylaws.
It also establishes how public spaces on campus are established and instructs campuses to make that information easily accessible to individuals outside the university community.
The policy also calls for NU to educate students, faculty, staff and others about the First Amendment and the university’s policies governing free speech and expression.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the Nebraska ACLU, said “there was a lot to like” about the policy, but she urged regents to consider amending certain parts of the policy for clarification purposes or to add certain provisions.
Conrad asked regents to clarify what was meant by discriminatory language under the policy and how it was affected by other federal guidelines such as Title IX. She also said the policy should include a statement referring to due process rights of those who violate the policy.
Regents said they were thrilled by the drafting committee’s work, as well as that faculty, students and other organizations had an opportunity to review it.
Regent Bob Whitehouse of Papillion called it “a good policy,” viewed and reviewed by “every professional working group,” as well as the university’s legal counsel.
Regents Hal Daub and Howard Hawks, both of Omaha, commended the policy for its inclusion of an education component, which Daub said made NU’s policy “quite remarkably different” than many other policies at universities around the country.
Student regents, too, said the policy was supported by the respective campuses. The Association of Students at the University of Nebraska signaled its approval in a vote Wednesday night, UNL Student Regent Joe Zach said.
Regents said they hoped the policy would assuage state lawmakers who called on NU for assurances that campuses were welcoming places to students and faculty of all viewpoints.
In asking Bounds how many complaints of political censorship NU has received, Regent Paul Kenney of Amherst said the state should feel confident in the university’s approach.
“Fifty-three thousand students and one complaint,” he said. “Look how much time has been spent on it.”