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UNL professors defend academic freedom after dustup involving lecturer, student recruiting for conservative group

September 21, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — Two University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors defended robust academic freedom and free speech Monday evening outside the Nebraska Union.

About 50 professors and students attended the roughly 40-minute rally. A few carried signs such as: “Don’t Gag Our Educators,” “Academic Freedom is Democracy” and “Support UNL Faculty.”

The rally was prompted by a dustup last month involving graduate student lecturer Courtney Lawton, a member of the English department, who flipped off a sophomore who was recruiting for the conservative organization Turning Point USA. Lawton also said on a video captured by the student that the student “wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids.”

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DACA is the 2012 order that temporarily protects from deportation certain children and young adults who were brought to the country illegally by their parents.

UNL this month removed Lawton from her teaching duties, citing concern for Lawton’s and her students’ safety. Lawton said she had received threats online from “right-wing extremists.”

[More: Amid free speech firestorm, NU grapples with keeping debate robust but respectful ]

One of the professors who spoke Monday evening, Julia Schleck, said Lawton received a letter from UNL administrators criticizing her behavior.

Schleck, a UNL English professor and president of the Nebraska chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said academic freedom is vital for teachers, researchers and students. Academic freedom ensures that a wide variety of opinions will be heard, she said.

Schleck said in an interview that there was concern on campus that UNL had caved to pressure from outside the university.

Students are deprived of Lawton’s classroom work, Schleck said. “Courtney Lawton is an award-winning teacher,” Schleck said. “She was acting as a citizen expressing her political views and not as a teacher.”

Fran Kaye, also an English professor, said in an interview that she wouldn’t personally have flipped off the student. Nevertheless, Kaye said, Lawton was a private citizen at the time and the student was as well.

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Lawton wasn’t behaving in her role as an instructor, Kaye said.

UNL spokesman Steve Smith wrote in an email Monday that UNL “cultivates and supports an environment that protects academic freedom, allows a robust exchange of ideas to be expressed and different viewpoints to be respected.”

Kaye said academic freedom is true patriotism. It isn’t flag-waving and saying America is always right, Kaye said. It’s observing, she said, what can be done better so mistakes aren’t repeated.

rick.ruggles@owh.com, 402-444-1123, twitter.com/rickruggles