Investigation at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

By Hans-Joerg Tiede

In May, the AAUP published online the report of an investigation at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The investigation concerned the suspension of a graduate student and part-time lecturer, Courtney Lawton, who protested an on-campus recruitment table of Turning Point USA, a right-wing organization that explicitly targets what it sees as the liberal agenda in US higher education and maintains the Professor Watchlist website. Her protest generated significant attention in the state and online, leading to threats against her. The administration subsequently extended her suspension through the end of her term of appointment, an action that the investigating committee determined to be tantamount to her summary dismissal.

The committee found that political pressure on the university was “in some sense . . . at the very heart of [the case].” Soon after the event became widely known, state legislators began to point to Lawton’s conduct toward the undergraduate student staffing the recruitment table as representative of a campus climate hostile to conservative views, and the Nebraska Republican Party filed open records requests for email correspondence related to the case.

While the administration initially reprimanded the lecturer for “disrespectful, taunting, or intimidating” behavior, it subsequently took the position that it was not the content of the lecturer’s speech but the suppression of the undergraduate student’s speech that occurred when the lecturer supposedly blocked access to the table that was objectionable. The lecturer and other faculty members who reviewed video evidence of the incident deny that it shows her blocking the table. The investigating committee’s request to view the video was denied.

Although the administration took the position that the suspension was not tantamount to dismissal, the chancellor’s announcement “that [Lawton] will not teach at our university going forward because of [her] inappropriate behavior” left little doubt as to nature of the action taken against her. While the administration offered her access to a grievance process, it refused to provide the dismissal hearing to which she was entitled under institutional regulations and AAUP-supported standards of academic due process.

The report finds that “the conclusion seems inescapable that the basis for Ms. Lawton’s dismissal was related to the political content of her speech and thus may have violated her academic freedom, a conclusion that stands unrebutted absent the affordance of a dismissal hearing.”

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