Nebraska Politics

The Big Red Scare

As everyone knows by now, Courtney Lawton, a graduate student in the English Department at UNL, was relieved of her teaching duties because she flipped off a student and called her a “Becky” (among other things).

Except that that’s actually completely wrong. The official reason Courtney Lawton was relieved of her teaching duties, is that she stood in front of the other student’s Turning Point USA table in such a way as supposedly to block access to the information that student was disseminating.

This is a very important detail. In fact, it might be the most important detail in the whole storied affair, because it helps to explain LB 718, The Higher Education Free Speech Act.

Without this detail, it’s hard to understand why Steve Halloran, one of three outraged Nebraska senators (Tom Brewer and Steve Erdman being the other two), would decide to draft legislation that is all about free speech. Why would he introduce legislation that at least appears to strengthen free speech rights, while at the same time howling for Lawton to be fired? Because if this is about free speech, it is surely about Lawton’s free speech rights. The American Association of University Professors thinks so, and so does the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). And so does any reasonable person looking at this issue, whatever their perspective on it might be.

But once we grasp the exact reason Lawton was dismissed from teaching duties, all becomes clear. From the perspective of the senators, you see, this is all about the TPUSA student’s free speech rights. The problem is not that Lawton’s rights as a citizen might be in jeopardy, but really, the opposite. The problem is the rights of the supposedly aggrieved conservative minority. LB 718 is designed to prevent people from doing anything in the way of counter-protest when right-wing organizations like TPUSA want to have their say.

There are a couple of problems with this. Perhaps the biggest one is that it would render any attempt to obstruct the speech of, say, a group of neo-nazis, actively illegal. Which is a problem for us at Seeing Red, because when said nazis start goose stepping across the quad, we fully intend to tell them to fuck off in the most uncivil way we possibly can — hopefully, by drowning out their noxious nonsense. We don’t dispute their right to speak. We simply assert our right to speak more loudly.

But that’s not all. One of the many reasons American universities are the envy of the world is because American universities are generally shielded from political interference (this is not the way they do things in, for example, Iran or North Korea). The legislature has the power of the purse, and no one working at a state-funded institution disputes that. But the actual governance of the University falls to a group of elected representatives on the University Board of Regents. It is, in fact, illegal under the Nebraska Constitution for the legislature to interfere with the operation of the university. The matter actually came up in 1977, when the Board of Regents sued the legislature over their attempt to do just that. They won.

And this law is really quite breathtaking in its micromanagement of university affairs. It establishes — as a matter of state law — a university committee that must report back to the legislature. It even specifies the actual composition of that committee. If such a law were to pass and to withstand further legal scrutiny, what’s to prevent the legislature from demanding that certain subjects be added — or subtracted — from the university curriculum? What’s to prevent them from prohibiting certain types of scholarly inquiry (climate change, gun control — “evidence-based” science that has come under fire recently at the federal level)? Such attempts to control the intellectual life of the nation have been the first move of every authoritarian regime in history. It is the proudest boast of our public system of higher education that we don’t tolerate this kind of nonsense. We shouldn’t start now.

Of course, defenders of the bill will insist that this is all about the First Amendment, and who can object to that? But really, the First Amendment is all about the First Amendment, and it’s been doing a pretty good job of protecting free speech rights for over two hundred years. This bill is about a fictional world in which conservatives, despite controlling every significant position of political power in the United States, are nonetheless a traumatized minority in need of special protection. It is also about challenging a time-honored tradition that protects higher education from transient political interests. Finally, it is about theater. I suspect Senator Halloran would like to be known for defending the good people of Nebraska against the threat of godless liberals, and the University is a good platform for that, because professors are supposedly a bunch of crypto-communists bent on the indoctrination of the youth.

In reality, the only relation any of this has to communism is in the subtly McCarthyite overtones of this bill.  But in some sense, the political interference has already occurred.  There’s just no way that University President Hank Bounds and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green spontaneously decided — against all logic and common sense — that this whole thing is about the supposed obstruction of conservative speech .  That line was handed to them by the right, and they fell in line without any apparent resistance.

With that kind of leadership at the helm, one wonders if we need actual laws in order to allow the government to interfere with higher ed.