Two free speech groups, one national and the other in Nebraska, have warned the University of Nebraska-Lincoln against adopting broad anti-bias policies that could impede free expression.
The warning addresses the longstanding conflict between free speech rights and words that some find abhorrent. Free speech advocates argue that the speech that people find offensive generally is protected by the First Amendment.
Speech that is rightfully prohibited on campus must involve genuine threats or be so severe and pervasive as to hinder one’s ability to function or study, a representative of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said Tuesday.
UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green made it clear in the summer that he wanted campus race relations examined and improved in light of national protests over the treatment of Black people by law enforcement and others.
Among other things, Green said in July that UNL leaders must be held accountable for enforcing anti-racist strategies and should examine how the climate impedes individuals’ campus experiences.
In a Dec. 7 letter to Green, the Philadelphia-based FIRE wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court “has repeatedly made clear that speech cannot be restricted merely because some or even many find it to be hateful or offensive.”
UNL responded Tuesday with a two-sentence statement: “It is not unusual for FIRE to offer its perspective on issues of this nature. We appreciate the group’s comments.”
UNL recently assigned two UNL faculty members to review anti-bias policies. The directives for their work defined bias as behavior that is “hostile, harassing, intimidating or discriminatory” on the basis of “race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender” and other characteristics, the university said in a publication.
The definition goes on to list “hate speech,” “racial jokes” and “objectifying women” as examples of such speech.
FIRE said in its letter that those kinds of speech may be ugly, but they could “include a wide swath of protected speech.”
The Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska endorsed FIRE’s letter and “urges UNL to develop and maintain policies that fully respect academic freedom, free speech, and First Amendment rights as it addresses issues of bias and social justice.”
UNL recently updated a system that “allows the university community to report matters which do not pose an immediate emergency but may need to be elevated or addressed,” the university said last month through an online publication.
Those reports could lead to “possible investigation of an incident” or could be “forwarded to a respective campus unit for consideration,” the UNL article said.
FIRE said in its letter to Green that the information doesn’t say that all reported incidents may lead to investigation or punishment, but “neither does it clarify that protected speech is not subject to disciplinary action.”
FIRE noted that a federal appeals court recently found that a former University of Michigan “bias response team” had the potential to chill student speech with the authority to meet with an accused student. The invitation to meet contained an “implicit threat of consequence” if the student declined to meet, the court said.
FIRE said Michigan replaced the response team with a “campus climate support” team. That team, Michigan said, “is not a disciplinary body, cannot impose discipline, and does not require participation” from a student.
Laura Beltz, a senior program officer with FIRE, said Tuesday that if the UNL reporting system exists solely to support students who have been offended and not to punish other students, that should be clarified.
Otherwise, “that can create a chilling effect on speech,” she said in an interview. “Just clarity in these policies is important.”
David Moshman, an AFCON member and a retired UNL professor, said that when an institution compromises on free speech, “all kinds of speech is potentially targeted” and “anything anyone finds objectionable is potentially punishable.”