LINCOLN–On Aug. 25, University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Kaitlyn Mullen stood at a table in front of the Nebraska Union on behalf of Turning Point USA, a conservative organization seeking to establish a chapter on campus.
As she was handing out stickers and fliers with phrases such as “Socialism Sucks” and “Make Taxation Theft Again,” she was approached by university employees.
Some protested, carrying their own makeshift fliers with phrases like “Just Say No! to Neo-Fascism.” Another told Mullen the spot was only available for those who made reservations through the university and asked her to move to a “free-speech zone.”
The incident sparked a free speech debate on UNL’s campus mirroring that at colleges across the country, and made people wonder: what freedoms do students have on college campuses?
While the answers differ depending on the college, each of Nebraska’s public colleges has have free speech guidelines laid out for its faculty and students.
Following the Turning Point USA incident, University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds released an address calling the faculty member’s actions “unprofessional” and not in line with the conduct he expects from members of the University of Nebraska community.
“I am a vigorous defender of free speech and I stand by the rights of all employees and students to express their opinions, no matter how provocative,” Bounds said in the address. “… I will continue to support free speech, but we must allow for the healthy exchange of ideas without personal attacks, especially against young people who are our future.”
While the university system supports freedom of speech, there are limitations.
According to policies laid out by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, preserving freedom of speech and peaceful demonstration is possible only in an “orderly environment.” If the demonstration is deemed dangerous or interferes with other legitimate activities, the university community may impose restrictions to “preserve the orderly functioning of the University and the right of all to be heard.”
Kelly Bartling, the University of Nebraska, Kearney assistant vice chancellor of communications and community relations, said the freedom of speech policies at UNK have been updated recently. Students at UNK had questions concerning the use of chalk to spread messages on campus, and Bartling said they wanted the policies to be clear and to open more discussion areas on campus.
“We looked into how to make sure the campus is open and available … while protecting the peace and quiet,” she said.
The Nebraska State College System — which includes Chadron State College, Peru State College and Wayne State College — has freedom of speech guidelines similar to those at the University of Nebraska.
The NSCS policy states that free expression in the academic community “shall not be abridged by special restrictions or censorship.” However, a student may face disciplinary sanctions for certain forms of misconduct, including any act that “disrupts or obstructs the normal operations, activities or functions of the College” or “disturbs the peace and quiet of any person or group of persons.”
Jeff Carstens, the vice president and dean of students at Wayne State College, said he hasn’t seen a disruptive demonstration in his 20-plus years at Wayne State College.
“I think the more specific and objective the policies are, the more easily understood they are,” he said. “The less discretion or judgment, the easier it is for people to understand what the rules are.”