The University of Nebraska will reaffirm its commitment to free speech and expression next week when the Board of Regents considers a policy to make its campuses more conducive to the free exchange of ideas.
Following the model of a 2015 statement by the University of Chicago, NU’s proposal outlines the university’s commitment to the First Amendment rights of speech and expression, which it says are critical to its mission of education, research and outreach.
NU began drafting its own free speech policy at the direction of President Hank Bounds last September.
A group of six administrators, led by Carmen Maurer, strategic adviser to the president, worked with regents, other administrators, faculty, staff and students from all four university campuses in crafting the statement. The earliest draft was circulated in early November.
The proposed policy, which Regents Bob Whitehouse of Omaha and Rob Schafer of Beatrice will bring before the board Jan. 25, is prefaced with a statement that national and local events in recent years “have prompted the university to re-examine and re-dedicate itself to the principles of free expression”
“At a time when we’re part of a national conversation about these issues, it’s important for us to re-examine and recommit ourselves to the principles that any institution of higher learning must hold dear,” Whitehouse said.
The university was thrust onto the national stage last August after a confrontation between UNL student Kaitlyn Mullen and graduate student lecturer Courtney Lawton during a protest of a recruiting event for Turning Point USA, a conservative student group.
Conservative media and lawmakers accused NU of restricting the speech of Mullen and other conservative students, while faculty groups said the way university officials disciplined Lawton in response infringed upon the principles of academic freedom at the university.
NU’s draft policy draws an inclusive stance for both groups.
“Although members of the university community are free to comment on, criticize and contest views that others express, they must do so at a time and place, and in a manner that does not prevent, impede, or obstruct the freedom of others to also exercise their rights,” it states.
Noting the First Amendment “provides no guarantee of civility,” NU nevertheless encourages civil discourse and acknowledges that not all speech is protected by law.
Threats of violence, unlawful discrimination, or defamatory or defrauding speech by members of the university community could be subject to penalty under the Student Code of Conduct or the regents’ bylaws.
The policy also delineates academic freedom as separate from an individual’s First Amendment rights, saying NU “is clear in its commitment” to academic freedom without interfering or encumbering those principles.
NU chancellors will also need to implement guidelines for how public spaces on campus may be used and to make that information easily accessible on the campus websites.
For example, NU will publicly provide information detailing “designated public forums” — places open to the campus community and public such as malls, a plaza or sidewalk — as well as “limited public forums” such as concert halls that can be limited to a specific use, and “non-public forums” such as classrooms, research labs, or administrative offices.
Finally, NU’s draft policy calls for “regular opportunities for the university community to educate itself about the First Amendment and this policy.”
Faculty had the chance beginning in November to review and offer suggestions to the document.
Laura Grams, an associate professor of philosophy and president of the faculty senate at UNO, said Omaha faculty “expressed strong support” for the statement.
“There was not just boilerplate policy language,” Grams said. “It was really reaffirming some of the ideas important to academia and the intellectual mind, which I think people really appreciate deeply here.”
David Moshman, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at UNL, had a different take, saying the first draft read like “it was put together by administrators and lawyers,” with revisions by teachers and students added in later.
“It still seems like a document written by administrators and lawyers,” he said, pointing to “glitches” in portions of the statement regarding academic freedom he said misinterpret long-held principles outlined in an American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Moshman, who writes extensively on free speech and expression as well as academic freedom, said it appears regents are “trying to head off” free speech proposals in the Legislature.
He said a bill (LB718) introduced earlier this month by Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, which would require NU to form a committee that would report “barriers to free speech on campus,” has a better grasp of the First Amendment, but oversteps its authority on constitutional grounds.
“It has some nice language taken from some nice places, but it’s put together in a not-very-thoughtful way,” he concluded.
Azhar Majeed, vice president of policy reform for the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, said NU's statement is a “good draft policy statement” and consistent with policies being developed on campuses across the U.S.
“I think it does a good job of laying out the importance of free speech in a university setting and why administration, faculty and students should care,” Majeed said. “Administrators are trying to get it right in what free speech means in practice at their institution, as well as how students and faculty can work with each other and tolerate differing viewpoints.”
FIRE tracks the development and adoption of free speech policies around the country. Prior to NU’s policy, the University of Central Florida, Michigan State University, Kansas State University and the University of Northern Illinois have approved similar guidelines governing free speech.
Both Majeed and Moshman said Nebraska's draft policy would be at odds with other campus rules, particularly a provision of NU's sexual harassment policy barring “verbal abuse,” which FIRE says infringes on an individual’s right to offensive speech.
FIRE also downgraded UNL from a “green light” rating to a “yellow light” rating because of a policy requiring student groups to obtain approval for outdoor activities, which it said is unconstitutional.
“Some policies on the books would be inconsistent” with the draft policy to be considered by regents, Majeed said. “We would love to see those be revised so they are consistent with this really good policy statement.”