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Free speech

Sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen engages fellow students outside the Nebraska Union last August, sharing the message of Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit organization that advocates for fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government.

Emails between lawmakers and University of Nebraska officials obtained by the Journal Star through a public-records request illustrate tense behind-the-scenes dealings in the wake of a politically charged event at UNL last August.

Just days after photos and video went viral online showing UNL lecturer Courtney Lawton protesting a Turning Point USA recruiting event outside the Nebraska Union on Aug. 25, Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard called for the graduate student to be fired.

He would later demand Lawton not be allowed to finish her degree at UNL, records show.

Erdman also called for the firing of Amanda Gailey, an associate professor of English, who was photographed standing with a sign requesting the conservative student organization place her on its “Professor Watch List” of faculty it deems radical.

“I called (Chancellor) Ronnie Green’s office yesterday and left a message for him,” Erdman wrote in an email to Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete and others on Aug. 30. “I will ask him to fire these teachers. It is time for someone to defend the young people who are conservative.”

About a week later, UNL removed Lawton from her teaching duties within the English Department, indicating it was for safety reasons and not to discipline her.

NU President Hank Bounds addressed the situation with lawmakers in an email on Sept. 7, saying while he believed Lawton’s behavior was inappropriate, he also believed it was an outlier. He declined to discuss “specific personnel actions,” but told senators Lawton had been reassigned.

Erdman, who has become one of NU’s most vocal critics, blasted Bounds about an hour later.

“I am very disappointed that you did not terminate these two people!” he wrote. “In my opinion that’s what leadership would look like.”

Erdman said reassigning Lawton away from teaching duties was “a way for you to save face with all of those teachers and the people in the union.”

“This is unacceptable in my opinion and these people need to be eliminated from employment at the University of Nebraska,” the senator wrote. “You and your team had an opportunity with this issue to show what the university really stands for. I do not believe that this is what you want to [sic] university to be, a place where you can do whatever you want as a professor and still keep your job.”

Other senators wrote to lend their support.

Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln expressed his “full confidence” in Bounds and Green in his own Sept. 7 reply, saying he would “fiercely oppose any effort to get the Legislature involved in University administrative matters.”

Omaha Sen. John McCollister thanked Bounds for his words, remarking, “There are always going to be outliers with strange things to say on a University campus.”

Geist wrote to Bounds on Sept. 19 that she was “disappointed by the University’s lack of response” to the incident, saying she felt NU was not upholding its own stated beliefs related to diversity and inclusion on campus.

She demanded action from university leadership: “I want to be informed by you the steps the University of Nebraska is taking to assure every student who depends on a grade from one of these faculty members who all appear to be from the English Department, is being treated and graded fairly. There should be, at minimum, a formal plan in writing,” she wrote.

Geist also asked to be informed of whom students should contact if they witnessed “unprofessional behavior” in the future. She told Bounds the actions of Lawton and Gailey “must be proportionately addressed to allow the rebuilding of trust” between the university and state.

The issue largely went away from mid-September until the end of October, when several newspapers published an editorial by Sens. Erdman, Steve Halloran of Hastings and Tom Brewer of Gordon that was critical of how the university treats students with conservative political beliefs.

That editorial, and the responses of both Bounds and Green, reignited the debate once more.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist sent an email to university leaders, regents, Gov. Pete Ricketts and the three senators behind the editorial on Oct. 31 lambasting them for the opinion piece.

“I have little respect for the tactics of the three Senators involved in this ‘co-signed’ piece. I am not surprised with Senator Halloran…true to form!!!” Krist wrote.

“I am surprised at Senators Brewer and Erdman…and if they HAD communicated their issues before the piece, I might have more respect and understanding, as well as made my comments private to them and you,” he added. “But, they have spoken openly so my questions/comments will be the same.”

Krist said he believed the three freshman senators had not “learned there [sic] ‘PLACE’ and functionality within their new profound duties and responsibilities.”

Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell asked Green about the accusation from some senators that approximately 10 minutes of surveillance footage of the incident was missing.

“The incident is captured on surveillance camera that goes back and forth in 10-minute increments between the plaza where tabling was occurring and the plaza fountains area,” Green replied on Nov. 3. “The tape does capture the period under question in the incident and parallels the written and verbal accounts given by the individuals involved.”

McCollister told Bounds on Nov. 1: “Please don’t let a few bad apples spoil the good relationships that most state senators have with you and the University.”

Ebke, after voicing some concern about the video days after it went viral, thanked Bounds for his response to the three senators’ editorial.

“While there are many things that concern me about the incident from 10 weeks ago, and many legislators got pulled into making comments concurrent to the event, I believe that this is now a matter better suited for the elected Regents to deal with,” Ebke wrote on Oct. 31.

“I’m confident that you will all do what needs to be done to protect the reputation and academic integrity of the University — you don’t need a bunch of legislators trying to micromanage well beyond our experience,” she added.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 16, NU’s top administrators met with the three state senators who co-wrote the editorial at the Capitol to discuss the matter.

The next day — the same day Lawton was told she would no longer be teaching at UNL and that her contract would not be renewed at the end of the school year — Bounds and Erdman talked on the phone.

Erdman emailed Bounds the following Tuesday, Nov. 21, to follow up on part of their conversation.

“I recall that you said the letter would be sent either by you or an attorney, and would outline my liability in regards to disciplinary action taken against graduate teaching assistant, Courtney Lawton. You indicated that Courtney Lawton is suing the University of Nebraska. I have yet to receive this letter,” Erdman wrote.

Erdman copied all eight members of the Board of Regents on a Nov. 29 email asking about the same potential lawsuit from Lawton.

Regent Bob Whitehouse responded to Erdman’s question in a formal letter dated Dec. 12.

“In your conversation on November 17, you stated your position that Courtney Lawton’s employment relationship with the University of Nebraska must be terminated immediately and that she must not receive any additional compensation from or remain as a student at the University,” Whitehouse wrote.

“You also told them that these steps you expected the University to take were ‘non-negotiable.’”

Whitehouse informed Erdman that no lawsuit had been filed against the university, but said Erdman could be involved in legal action, recommending the senator seek the advice of the attorney general.

The Journal Star requested emails and other communication among university officials and state lawmakers on Nov. 3.

NU denied the request on Nov. 9, citing a statute protecting senators’ records from being made public because they contained constituent communications.

The Journal Star requested an opinion from the Nebraska attorney general on Nov. 21. On Jan. 24, Attorney General Doug Peterson sided with the newspaper, saying the university improperly applied the exemption to the state's public-records law.

That exemption was intended for individual senators or the Legislature as a whole, according to legislative records from 1983, the attorney general’s office said.

“We do not believe the exception applies to correspondence written to another public body for which a public-records request is then made to that public body,” the disposition letter reads. “Consequently, we will request that the university release these records to you upon receipt of this letter.”

On Monday, NU emailed state senators to inform them of the public-records request and to provide them with copies of the records to be turned over to the Journal Star.

The email from NU notes senators could speak with the attorney general’s office, the Executive Board of the Legislature, or seek a court injunction preventing their release. It also said senators could object by contacting the newspaper.

No senators voiced objections to the Journal Star as of Friday evening.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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