NU’s free speech controversy won’t die; 2 groups express concern about new policy

New University of Nebraska directives on free speech, and draft proposals on campus free speech zones, are drawing opposition from two organizations.

The Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska says an already-implemented free speech policy encouraging “civil discourse” defies the basic tenet of free expression. AFCON also challenged a “tip sheet” distributed in February to University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty members.

The tip sheet recommends that professors inform students that conversations in class “must be respectful and civil.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and AFCON expressed concern this month about draft ”buildings and grounds” proposals that limit public forums to certain areas on campus.

When the NU Board of Regents approved a new free expression policy in January, it directed the campuses to develop the policies on buildings and grounds.

“The more we looked at it, the more we felt it should just be rescinded,” David Moshman, president of AFCON, said about the free speech policy the NU Board of Regents passed in January. “It’s going on around the country. Some of it relates to maybe especially intense political polarization.”

UNL had a close encounter with the challenge of free speech in August when a graduate student-lecturer flipped off and belittled a sophomore for sitting at a table and recruiting for the arch-conservative Turning Point USA. That lecturer’s contract won’t be renewed at the end of the school year.

The situation also led to questions about whether the sophomore was in a free speech area as she distributed her information. This in part prompted the regents’ desire for campuses to write regulations for buildings and grounds.

Moshman said the key exceptions to the First Amendment include libel, obscenity, true threats, incitement and harassment. Even those are narrowly defined, he said. Harassment is a pattern of actions against a person, he said, not just offensive words.

Here are several elements in the policies and proposals that concern the organizations:

» In its draft, UNL says its designated public forums are Memorial Plaza north of the Nebraska Union and Legacy Plaza south of the Nebraska East Union. They are “the only designated public forums on campus,” the draft reads.

» The University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska at Omaha’s drafts say their campuses are “not open to unrestricted public access.” Members of the public and even faculty and student groups may use “many spaces . . . with appropriate approval and when scheduled in advance.”

» AFCON objects to the tip sheet’s warning that any speech deemed “abusive, harassing, intimidating or coercive” may result in discipline. AFCON called this an “unconstitutional speech code.”

» AFCON also objects to a line in the regents’ policy that says professors “should be careful not to introduce controversial matters, which have no relation to the subject being taught.” The placement of the comma leaves the clause open to the interpretation that any controversial matter has no relation to the subject.

Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of UNMC and UNO, said his administration has received faculty input on the facility policy and wants more.

“Share them,” Gold said. “Let us chew on them.”

There is no question that the NU system vigorously defends freedom of expression and intellectual freedom, Gold said. “Our values around free speech and academic freedom are very clear.”

Bob Bartee, a vice chancellor at UNMC and UNO, said interpretation will be necessary with the grounds policies. “Some of this you can’t put down on paper, in my mind,” Bartee said. “We’re going to have to have some flexibility and lean toward letting things flow.”

UNL spokeswoman Leslie Reed said the grounds policies seek to formalize practices that weren’t well-articulated in the past. They also aim to enact consistent policies across the NU system’s institutions, she said.

Reed said they hope to have the policies in place by early May.

Moshman said he wasn’t calling for classrooms, labs, offices and dorms to be wide open for public protests. But public areas of campuses, such as sidewalks and green spaces, typically are open forums, he said.

Ronald Krotoszynski, a University of Alabama law professor, said campuses across the nation are wrestling with free speech.

“The problem isn’t in the motives,” he said. “The problem is in the implementation of these rules.”

Krotoszynski said commitments to inclusivity sometimes lead to protection against vile comments. And federal laws open the possibility that harassing and intimidating speech may expose a campus to a “hostile workplace” claim, he said, although the behavior must be pervasive and ongoing.

Sam Walker, a retired UNO professor, said he plans to stage a protest April 9 at 9 a.m. on UNO’s campus against the proposed grounds and facilities policy.

“It’s public property, it’s state property, it’s supported by tax dollars,” Walker said of the campus. When he and University of Michigan classmates picketed a Nazi’s appearance on campus in 1964, “we didn’t need permission” to protest.

Moshman said when he taught a psychology of adolescence class at UNL, he wrote in his syllabus: You are “encouraged to express your views on matters relevant to the course, even if others in the class may be offended or upset by those views. You also have a right to express your disagreement with anything you hear or read . . . “

He said it was regrettable that UNL professors now are encouraged to follow a tip sheet that reads: “Conversations in this course must be respectful and civil.”

Gary Kebbel, a journalism professor at UNL, said he understands what administrators are doing and appreciates it. If a student is verbally abusive or coercive, it blows the educational atmosphere, Kebbel said.

UNL administrators this year declined to kick out a white nationalist student whose social media rants caused a campus uproar in February. Administrators stood for free speech, Kebbel said, against many calls to expel the student.

Administrators have a tough job, he said, and universities have to walk a tightrope.

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