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Watchdog says Kansas university president silencing faculty

March 26, 2021 GMT

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The president at Haskell Indian Nations University has been accused by an academic watchdog group of restricting the free speech rights of the faculty, the latest First Amendment dustup to engulf the Kansas college.

Haskell’s president, Ronald Graham, sent “non-negotiable” directives outlined in a March 11 memorandum after experiencing what he termed “detractors” to his decisions addressing issues at the university. In it, Graham forbade all employees from expressing derogatory opinions about the administration and others, contending that such expression is “inappropriate” and not protected by academic freedom.

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Haskell Vice President of Academics Melanie Daniel also sent a March 21 email to faculty forbidding them from mentioning their Haskell employment when speaking with media.

The president’s directives were sent to all employees just days after a lawsuit was filed by the student newspaper editor alleging the university and its president violated the First Amendment rights of the students by retaliating against them for engaging in protected speech and journalistic activities. Graham later walked back that directive to the editor and acknowledged he “took an incorrect approach.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that aims to protect free speech rights on college campuses, wrote a letter Thursday to the Bureau of Indian Education, the federal agency that operates Haskell, to report what it called the administration’s second front in the battle against expressive rights. FIRE demanded Graham immediately rescind the directives to employees.

The nonprofit is the same entity that had filed the earlier lawsuit on behalf of Jared Nally, editor of The Indian Leader, after Graham instructed him not to contact any government agency for information while representing the paper or “attack” any student, faculty member or staff in copy.

Graham did not immediately respond to phone and email messages Friday. Daniel declined to comment, saying in an email to The Associated Press that she is prohibited from speaking to media in her official capacity without prior authorization.

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“Haskell’s continued willful blindness — or perhaps overt animosity — toward its obligations under the First Amendment are as stunning as they are unconstitutional,” Lindsie Rank, FIRE program officer, said in a news release. “Illogically, Haskell’s administration continues to do the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results.”

Rank added she can assure Graham that her organization “stands ready to correct these transgressions,” just like the last time his administration trampled rights with an unconstitutional directive.

Graham’s memo to staff told them they are required to follow the chain of command in solving problems. It told them everyone will be accountable for their actions, their work and for the work of those they supervise. He wrote that employees that that are “policing” the actions of others are “not only usurping authority and misusing official government time, but are creating and perpetuating animosity and discontent within the university.”